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A Thousand Acres | Themes

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Generational Conflict

The primary theme that powers A Thousand Acres is the conflict that arises between parents and their children as their roles change with age, and the world changes culturally and technologically. In any family tensions can erupt when an adult child starts taking control and making decisions for elderly parents. For a parent who has raised a child from infancy, that reversal of roles can be difficult to accept and resentment can flare. In a farm family the conflict is exacerbated by the need to figure out ownership and control of large parcels of land. Larry Cook worked a lifetime to take the acreage his father had left him and increase it to a thousand acres. The thought of undoing that work by dividing the land among his three daughters is intolerable to him. This makes Larry's macabre praise of Ty's father for dying "conveniently" more understandable. To Larry keeping the acreage of a farm intact is the utmost priority. Having just one son, and dying when that son is ready to start life as an independent man, is an ideal way to assure a peaceful and prosperous continuation of a family's farm. But with three children, that option isn't available to Larry. He decides to create a business corporation that will be the legal owner of his thousand acres, thus keeping the farm intact. All three daughters will run the corporation as a team. To him it seems like the perfect solution. Larry's friend and neighbor Harold Clark tries a different approach with his 500 acres and two sons. Harold decides to disinherit one son in order to leave the entire farm to the other.

Although the two men try two different solutions, neither one works. Harold only succeeds in alienating both his sons, demeaning Loren who had worked so hard on the farm for many years and antagonizing Jess to the point he doesn't even want the land, a twisted retelling of the biblical parable of the prodigal son. Then when Harold lashes out at Ginny and Rose for what he sees as their mistreatment of their father, Jess ends up punching his father in the face. They never live together again.

Larry doesn't count on how retiring from work and ceding control of his farm to his daughters and their husbands will affect him. Almost immediately after he signs the incorporation papers, Larry begins to deteriorate psychologically. He spends money unwisely, drives drunk, and ultimately spins into an uncontrolled paranoid rage at his daughters. The three of them rail both at him and at one another as they make increasingly desperate attempts to stop their father's downward spiral. Rose tries to dominate him, Caroline takes his side, and when Ginny tries to placate him, both of her sisters get angry with her. The final toll of this generational conflict is the complete disintegration of the Cook family.

Women's Status

Although the word feminism is never used, the book nonetheless makes a powerful indictment of the way farm women are treated through its depiction of the three Cook sisters. At the outset the youngest sister, Caroline, seems like the strongest and most independent one. She explicitly rejects the role of farm wife, becoming a lawyer and moving to Des Moines. Her older sisters, Ginny and Rose, who raised her in hopes she would make the most of her intelligence, are simultaneously proud and envious of her.

Rose especially is resentful Caroline has escaped the limits that still lock Rose into life on the farm. Abused first by her father and later by her husband, Rose is vehement and vocal about the indignities women suffer. She blames both men and farm life itself. It starts with the notion a farm wife or daughter's place is around the house, cooking and cleaning and raising children. Women are free to tend a vegetable garden—in fact, they are expected to—but that is where their decision-making role on the farm ends. Men are the ones who own the farm, and they are the ones who control it. They even consider their wives and daughters possessions. "We were just his, to do with as he pleased, like the pond or the houses or the hogs or the crops," Rose states bitterly in Chapter 24 when she reveals Larry's sexual abuse. In statements like this, Rose at times seems like the loudest champion of women in the novel. But Jane Smiley allows her to be a complex and realistic character whose actions sometimes contradict her words. For example, although she is outspoken about her anger toward the men in her life, she nevertheless remains in her marriage for years, even after her husband, Pete, breaks her arm.

Caroline also turns out not to be the feminist ideal readers may initially think she is. It's true she leaves the farm and has a profession of her own. And when she marries Frank Rasmussen she does retain her maiden name. But in refusing to take her husband's name she simply ends up keeping her father's, subtly foreshadowing Caroline doesn't get as far from the farm as she thinks she has. At the end she is the daughter who sides with Larry and winds up taking care of him.

Ginny is the sister who makes the most emphatic rejection of the subordinate and subservient role forced on farm women. She journeys from passive, contented farm wife at the start of the novel to cynical and celibate divorcée at the end. And whereas it took the deaths of both husband and father to free Rose, Ginny stages her own liberation. She gives up the farm she has only hours before won from her father, then walks away from her husband. It doesn't matter the prize for this is a solitary life waiting tables to pay the rent on a shabby apartment. The choice is hers and she finally found the strength to make it.

The Power of Memory

In A Thousand Acres memory is a powerful force that shapes the present by highlighting, distorting, or even erasing the past. The most striking use of memory in the novel is Ginny's complete suppression of all knowledge of her father's sexual abuse of her. It seems unbelievable anyone could forget something so horrendous, that they could erase all knowledge of events that happened to them while they were conscious. But in the early 1990s when the book was published, both legal and medical experts were grappling with cases where people who were sexually abused as children claimed to experience traumatic amnesia afterward as a coping mechanism. The phenomenon of so-called "repressed memory" is highly controversial, and not accepted by many psychologists. As a narrative technique, however, it is effective. When Ginny's memories of those nights with her father gradually begin to return, the things she remembers are so vivid and disturbing it is easy to accept she would have buried those memories as deeply as she could.

But it isn't just incest Ginny forgets. She also says at one point she cannot remember any of her life with her father before her mother's death. "Daddy's presence in any scene had the effect of dimming the surroundings."

Although there is much she has forgotten, there are many other things Ginny does remember. In fact, nearly every page of the novel contains her richly detailed memories, or of other characters' recollections. Memory equals story; Ginny needs the one to construct the other. But what she discovers is two people can have vastly different memories of the same event. It isn't just that Rose remembers their father's sexual abuse and Ginny does not. Ginny and Ty remember the details of their marriage differently. Ginny and Caroline remember the way Caroline was raised differently as well. As Ginny says, "The fact is that the same sequence of days can arrange themselves into a number of different stories."

As these examples show, the way a person remembers their past has a profound effect on their relationships to others. But the novel also demonstrates the way a person wants to shape a relationship can alter their memories as well. After Larry goes to live with Caroline, he wants to create a closer, more affectionate bond with her, so he tells her a story about how cute she was when she was a little girl, looking like his "little house wren" in her brown coat. Ginny overhears this and later discovers the story was wrong; it wasn't Caroline in the coat, it was Rose. But because Larry is now furious at Rose and desperate to ingratiate himself with Caroline, he no longer recalls the story that way. Whether out of guilt over the incest or anger at her present treatment of him, Larry's mind will not let him remember he ever thought Rose was his adorable little girl. Did the memory change to fit Larry's new attitude, or did his feelings distort the memory? That is a fascinating question the novel does not even attempt to answer. It simply demonstrates how malleable memory is and how powerful its effect can be on our relationships.

Modern Farming and the Environment

The pressure to succeed, to bring in a big enough harvest at a high enough price, drives farmers to use a host of chemicals. Everyone in the novel uses pesticides, weed killers, and fertilizers without considering the destructive impact they have on the environment. But their willful ignorance of the danger of their actions doesn't protect them from the consequences. Smiley makes this point vividly through the tragic fates of numerous characters in the book. Ginny suffers five miscarriages due to nitrate contamination of well water contaminated with toxic runoff from the fertilizer used on their fields. Harold Clark is blinded in a chemical accident on his tractor. And it is striking how many women in the county die from breast cancer, including Rose, Jess's mother Verna, and possibly Rose and Ginny's mother as well. (The novel never specifies what disease she died from, but it is a fair assumption.)

Initially the only character who cares about this is Jess Clark. He returns from 13 years living in western Canada with many ideas that seem foolish to the local farmers, from vegetarianism to organic farming. Jess is ridiculed by the other farmers for wanting to try nonchemical fertilizers and natural pest control methods. He does, however, manage to convince both Ginny and Rose about the consequences of the nitrate-poisoned well water they drink, but by then it is far too late. Ginny has already lost all hope of having a family of her own and Rose is dying from cancer. Jess, the one character who was willing to try something new, has given up and left Iowa forever. The short-term benefits of using toxic agricultural chemicals ultimately comes at a huge cost—both to the farmers themselves and to the environment.

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