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A Thousand Acres | Plot Summary

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Summary

Book 1

It is May of 1979 and 36-year-old narrator Ginny Cook Smith describes the thousand-acre Iowa farm owned by her widowed father Larry Cook. The land has been in the family for generations, beginning in 1890 when her great-grandparents emigrated from England and drained several hundred acres of marsh to grow crops.

Everyone in the county respects and is in awe of Larry, including Ginny and her 34-year-old sister Rose Cook Lewis, who is recovering from breast cancer. Both are married and living on farms adjacent to their father's. Rose has two daughters. Ginny has suffered five miscarriages and is childless. Only the youngest sister, 28-year-old Caroline Cook, has chosen a different path. She is an attorney in Des Moines and soon to be married to another lawyer.

Caroline is there for the pig roast their neighbor Harold Clark throws to celebrate the return of his oldest son, Jess, who fled to Canada 13 years earlier when he was drafted for the Vietnam War. Harold boasts about the expensive new tractor he just bought. To outdo him, Larry makes an announcement which shocks everyone. On the advice of banker Marv Carson, Larry intends to incorporate the farm and give it to his three daughters to run. Rose applauds the idea, and Ginny praises it although she has reservations. But Caroline expresses lawyerly caution, which infuriates her father. "Then you're out," he shouts. At first Caroline refuses to apologize, but when she relents and comes to the farm the day Larry signs the incorporation papers, he slams the door in her face without speaking.

Book 2

Over the next month, Jess starts showing up at Ginny and her husband Ty Smith's farm a lot. Jess shares his painful past with Ginny, which makes her feel close to him. Jess starts helping Ty out on the farm, and soon the three of them, along with Rose and her husband Pete Lewis, start playing nightly Monopoly games and form a group friendship.

Meanwhile Larry seems to give up on life almost immediately after he signs the legal papers giving away his farm. Ginny is disturbed when she sees him through the living room window sitting in a chair, doing nothing. He orders expensive kitchen cabinets and then leaves them outside to be ruined in the rain. Rose and Ginny discuss Larry often. They are upset Caroline is not doing more to help them manage their father.

More and more frustrated with his strange behavior, Ginny overcomes her reluctance and finally calls Caroline, only to fight with her over the phone. Ginny is annoyed and hurt when Caroline accuses her and Rose of manipulating their father into giving away the farm. Uneasy, Ginny later suggests to Ty they give back the farm, but he is excited about the prospect of expanding his hog operation.

Feeling misunderstood by everyone in her family, Ginny agrees to a secret meeting with Jess at a dump between their two farms. Although all they do is kiss, Ginny is both excited and scared about what is growing between them.

Book 3

One night over Monopoly they learn through the newspaper Caroline and her fiancée, Frank Rasmussen, have gotten married without inviting the family. Moments later, the phone rings with news Larry is in the emergency room after wrecking his truck. Although he is well enough to be sent home, he is facing arrest for drunk driving. Ty says Ginny and Rose are handling Larry wrong, and as they drive the 40 miles to pick up Larry, Ginny feels her marriage to Ty is failing. She suddenly realizes she wants to sleep with Jess.

The accident exacerbates tensions in the family. Ginny and Rose are both angry with Larry, who resents what he now sees as their theft of his farm. "I got nothing," he shouts. But Rose is also angry with Ginny for being too slow to judge their father and too quick to do whatever he wants. Between the trouble with Larry, the friction with Rose, and the coolness with Ty, Ginny has little sense of guilt when she has sex with Jess for the first time.

Ginny finally does set some rules for Larry, but the next day when she drives him to the chiropractor, he starts bossing her around again and she capitulates to his wishes. That doesn't do enough to assuage his mounting rage over the loss of his farm, so one night as a thunderstorm erupts, Larry takes Pete's truck. Ty finds Larry and brings him to the house, stating Larry has something he wants to tell Ginny. Larry launches into a vicious tirade against his daughters, calling them bitches and whores. Rose and Ginny defend themselves and Larry stomps out into the storm over their objections. Pete is furious, but he and Ty head out in the rain to try and find Larry before he has another accident.

Alone with Ginny, Rose makes a revelation: when they were teenagers after the death of their mother, Larry had sex repeatedly with both of them. Ginny is horrified, but refuses to believe this happened to her because she has absolutely no memory of it.

After the storm Larry goes to live with Harold, and it seems the entire county knows about what happened. Banker Marv even comes out to make sure this won't affect the operation of the farm, noting the bank has made Ty a huge loan to expand the hog operation. Ginny feels they need to keep up appearances amongst their neighbors, so even after Harold insults both her and Rose over their treatment of Larry, Ginny agrees to meet him and Larry at a church supper.

But Harold has set them up. When they all sit down at the same table with Larry, Harold lashes out against them, supporting Larry completely and even echoing him by calling Ginny and Ruth bitches. Furious, Jess grabs his father, Harold pushes back, and Jess ends up punching Harold in the face.

Book 4

After the fracas at church, Jess moves out of his father's house into Larry's now empty farmhouse across the road from Ty and Ginny's place. She goes over to get fresh sheets out for Jess. When she lies down on the bed she had as a teenager, a traumatic memory she has suppressed for 20 years suddenly resurfaces—that of her father sucking her breast. Overcome, Ginny screams and screams in the empty house until her voice gives out. But she tells no one: not Ty, not Jess, and not even Rose.

Another horrific event soon follows. While checking the level of liquid fertilizer in his new tractor, Harold's face is accidentally sprayed with ammonia. In agonizing pain he tries to flush the chemicals from his eyes with water, only to find the tractor's water tank completely dry. By the time he is taken to the hospital, it is too late; Harold is permanently blind. Ginny is sickened when she hears the news, but Ty accuses her of reacting coldly. It is Rose who actually has the coldest response, however. She tells Ginny Harold should suffer, as should their father, in repayment for all the harm they have caused, both as men and as farmers.

Ginny's life becomes a never-ending series of painful conversations. She has another angry phone call with Caroline, who is appalled Ginny and Rose allowed their father to go out into the storm that night. Ginny, who raised Caroline after their mother's death, feels betrayed and says Caroline should be grateful Ginny and Rose protected her from Larry. Caroline asks what she needed to be protected from and then hangs up.

Then Ty confronts Ginny about her miscarriages after digging up a bloody nightgown she had buried to hide another blighted pregnancy. He is furious Ginny lied to him. She is devastated his reaction is one of accusation, not sympathy and support. Feeling more alone than ever, she goes to see Jess and tells him she loves him: only to endure yet another blow when Jess makes it clear he does not love her back.

Then at a store in town, Ginny overhears a conversation between Caroline and their father that chills her. Larry speaks to Caroline lovingly, but there is something in the tone of his voice that seems inappropriate to Ginny: more like a lover than a father. The revulsion and fear this arouses drives Ginny to Rose's house, where she finally tells Rose her memories of the incest have returned.

Book 5

Ginny's memories continue to flow. In July she, Ty, and Rose meet with their lawyer. But all thoughts of the lawsuit are erased by another tragedy. Rose's husband Pete gets drunk, threatens Harold with a gun, drives his truck into a local quarry, and drowns. It remains unclear whether his death is an accident or suicide.

Although her daughters are devastated by their father Pete's death, Rose is not. She is merely playing the role of a grieving widow, in Ginny's view. Rose, drunk on vodka tonics, calls Ginny to the house one night after the funeral. Rose rails against the male farmers of the county, whom she says are either too stupid to recognize how Larry has abused them or complicit in his evil because they know and let it slide. They may even beat and rape their daughters themselves, she claims. Rose says she deserves her share of the farm because she paid for it by enduring sex with her father. She compares the loss of her breast to cancer as the "pound of flesh" she paid for the farm.

Then Rose confesses she is having an affair with Jess and she told Pete about it a week before his death. Pete understood how Larry's incest had warped Rose's attitude toward sex, so he blamed Larry not Jess for the affair. Pete wanted to kill his father-in-law, but he didn't do it directly. Instead he rigged Harold's tractor to malfunction, believing Larry would be the next person to drive it.

Ginny can hardly absorb these revelations. Rose's betrayal wounds Ginny deeply. She decides to kill Rose by poisoning a batch of homemade sausage with hemlock growing on the farm. She puts it in a jar and gives it to Rose, knowing it will be months before she eats it. Ginny is content to wait.

In October something good finally happens. At the court hearing on the lawsuit to take back the farm, Larry's testimony is irrational and incoherent. Even Caroline's testimony isn't enough to salvage the case. In the end the judge throws out the lawsuit and allows Ginny, Ty, and Rose to keep the farm.

Ginny doesn't get to celebrate the triumph for long. That night a quiet disagreement with Ty over buying a new stove reveals just how deep the split between them has gone. Leaving dinner cooking in the oven, Ginny drives off to start life on her own.

Book 6

Ginny is working as a waitress in Minnesota when she learns in a letter from Rose that Larry has had a heart attack and died. Ginny's main reaction is calm surprise Rose hasn't died yet from the poisoned sausage she left for her. There are many other changes at home. Jess has left Rose, and Ginny has signed over her share of the farm to Ty. He and Rose are farming it separately.

Three years pass and Ginny is still working at the same diner when Ty shows up to tell her the farm is losing money and he has given his share to Rose. He is on his way to Texas to look for work, and wants a divorce. Ty is a little upset Ginny doesn't care, but for her the marriage ended the day she walked out.

Several months after Ty's visit, Rose calls from the hospital. She is dying and wants Ginny to come home to take care of her daughters. The two sisters talk about everything. Rose doesn't seem to care when Ginny confesses about the poison sausage. Thinking of her cancer, Rose says, "You didn't have to bother. The well water did the trick."

She doesn't want her daughters to inherit this toxic legacy: and she doesn't want them to end up as farm wives under the thumb of domineering men either. So she is leaving the farm to Ginny and Caroline instead.

What matters most to Rose at the end of her life is her rage at her father, and her regret she was never able to force him to confront his own crimes. The only thing she is proud of, Rose says, is she resisted the urge to escape the pain of her memories by forgiving him. To Rose that's all forgiveness is: a "reflex for when you can't stand what you know."

Rose dies and the farm has to be auctioned off to pay the debt. Ginny runs into her sister Caroline at the house before the auction. Caroline is angry and distant and worried Ginny has some secret knowledge that will destroy Caroline's good memories of their father. Ginny almost tells her about the incest, but holds back out of a kind of mercy.

Then she goes to Rose's house, finds the poisoned sausage in the basement freezer, and destroys it. A burden lifts at last.

Epilogue

Several years later, Ginny is still working as a waitress and raising Rose's daughters Pam and Linda. After the farm was auctioned, she faced a $34,000 tax bill on the proceeds. Caroline was able to pay off her half right away, but Ginny has a 14-year repayment plan. She works extra hours at a restaurant and thinks of this as a gradual way to also pay down the regret she feels about her life.

But it is clear regret lives in the very cells of her body and she may never be able to exorcise it. She cannot forget Ty or Jess, or the five babies she lost to miscarriage. Most of all, she cannot forget either Rose or Larry. She misses Rose fiercely; her homicidal anger having dissipated long ago. But her feelings about her father are more complex. She does not know how to forget, nor how to judge him. The only satisfaction she can find is she is stronger than he was: he could never face his inner darkness, but she can endure the memory of what he did to her.

A Thousand Acres Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Larry gives the farm to the family, spurning Caroline.

Rising Action

2 Larry crashes his truck while drunk and is hospitalized.

3 Ginny begins an affair with Jess.

4 Ginny and Rose argue with Larry, who exits into a storm.

5 Rose tells Ginny their father had sex with both of them.

6 Harold lashes out at Ginny and Rose at a church supper.

7 Harold is blinded by chemicals in a tractor accident.

8 Caroline and Larry file a lawsuit to take the farm back.

9 In a drunken rage, Pete drowns after driving into the quarry.

10 Ginny plots Rose's death because of her affair with Jess.

Climax

11 A judge rules that Ginny, Ty, and Rose should keep the farm.

Falling Action

12 Ginny leaves Ty and moves to Minnesota.

13 Larry dies. Ginny doesn't know until after the funeral.

14 Dying of breast cancer, Rose asks Ginny to raise her girls.

Resolution

15 Ginny and Caroline argue one last time at the farm auction.

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