Reading Challenge Book 5: A Thousand Acres

Most books that I have read have left a positive, if not thought-provoking, impact on me. A Thousand Acres is one of the exceptions in that, while it has had an effect, it’s not one I think I’ll want to repeat again.

Jane Smiley’s award winning novel, A Thousand Acres, has been living on my bookshelf for almost a decade due to a hazy recollection that it had made a meaningful impact when I first read it back at the age of 17.

At that age, I was in the last semester of my senior year of high school and, as I explained in my post on Monday, was struggling to both keep up with the demands of school and my mother’s mental health decline. Although I was temporarily able to see the reality of her circumstances, I was conflicted by the vastly opposing narratives my parents told me about each other. The unsurprising result was deep confusion and a need to find answers.

I believe I thought this book shined light on some of those answers and re-reminded me of what my family’s dynamics truly were. In truth, I was simply allowing myself to re-submerge within the lies of one party and allowed old habits and norms to re-establish themselves despite the detriment to my health and wellbeing.

When I chose A Thousand Acres to be part of this reading challenge, I recalled that initial punch it had left 10 years ago and wanted to reexamine why that reaction occurred. I had somehow forgotten a piece of the story that deeply bothers me, and I don’t think stumbling back into it has been especially positive or beneficial.

About the book:
A Thousand Acres is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel and re-imagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear. As the story commences, a cantankerous Iowa farmer decides to divvy up his farm among his three daughters. However, when his youngest rejects the offer in favor of her law degree and future as a lawyer, he cuts her out of his will and the plans he had designed for the family.

This kicks off a series of events that reveals and unravels issues that have long lived below the surface, kept as secrets or existing as dormant and seemingly lost memories. However, once those secrets percolate, it becomes apparent that they can never return to their submissive retreat.

Reaction at age 17:
A major theme of this novel, is seeing realities that live below the surface and finding truths where secrets or lies have long lived. It is this subject, I believe, of discerning facts from fables that initially drew me to A Thousand Acres and is why I found it so poignant at 17.

All families have stories. For some families, those tales live out in the open, free to live and breathe. Others however, are quietly known and exist only in dark corners so that they are not easily exposed or explored.

The protagonist Ginny, on several occasions, discovers long held perceptions or understandings to be quite far from the truth of reality. These revelations are devastating, and demonstrate the long-lasting impacts of abuse as well as how the mind adopts unhealthy coping mechanisms in order to make life bearable.

Ginny’s journey of discovery and revelations was a storyline I remember deeply responding to and hoped, that in her exploration, I may find the answers I too was searching for. I don’t know that I found answers in her story, but I think it queued me in on just how far reaching and lasting the history of abuse was within my own family.

Reaction at age 27:
I have to remind myself that I chose to begin this challenge because I want to trace my way back to the version of myself that was happy, expressive, and without so much self-consciousness. Because I can’t trust my memories to get me there, I’ve chosen to read the 16 books that have most impacted my life. Impacted, though, does not mean that those experiences were pleasant, just as many experiences I had outside of these books were not. A Thousand Acres is a story that brings me to memories that are painful, uncomfortable and, I think, generally best left alone.

As previously mentioned, one of the storylines explored in A Thousand Acres, reveals a truly horrifying history of abuse, a history that holds some similarity to my family’s. This is not abuse that I personally bore witness to or experienced, but it certainly lingered and meant that I could never be left alone with a certain family member. While I don’t remember always knowing the reason for this rule, I long recall a strong discomfort with their presence. I can also vividly recall my mother strictly telling me that I was not allowed to let this relative kiss me, in a tone that told far more than her curt and deliberate words.

Once the details of their actions came to my attention, I could not unknow them and so many uncomfortable encounters suddenly began to have meaning. I could also see how far reaching that person’s actions were across time and across the institution of our family. I also suspect that those abusive habits did not suddenly appear, but that they were passed down like any other family trait and kept hidden by the submission, shame, and fear of those who endured those inflictions.

I don’t know if reading A Thousand Acres and redigging through this part of my family’s past is especially constructive. In some ways, I suppose this novel sets the reminder to never allow such stories to lay dormant and to ensure that, should I someday have a family of my own, I share my heritage honestly and openly.

However, I’m simultaneously left feeling unsettled. Of course this is a deeply difficult subject, and having it live so close to my life, it naturally leaves an extra kick. But the struggle I’m now having, which I didn’t back at 17, is that I don’t quite understand my parents’ decision to allow my sisters and I to be around this individual and to raise us with a sense of high esteem for their character.

Considering how horrifying their actions were, I don’t know if I should place their decision as an overwhelming act of forgiveness or as one of submission and an attempt to sweep discomfort under the rug.

I somewhat suspect it’s the latter. And I’m just not sure what to make of that.

I’m quite glad to be moving on from this novel. While I can appreciate Smiley’s skill and literary artistry, this is not a story I think I need to rewind.

Fortunately, the next stop of this reading challenge journey is Harry Potter. And man, I am so I ready to sprint out of Iowa and jump on over to Hogwarts.

Up Next:
I am sorry to say that I will not be reading all 7 Harry Potter books, but have chosen to re-read the final chapter of Harry’s story: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Join me on February 25, as I return to England, to Hogwarts, and to the characters who filled in as the family and friends my child-self wished for.

February 25: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling – originally read at age 16
February 28: Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko – originally read at age 15
March 4: The Odyssey by Homer – originally read at age 14
March 11: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow – originally read at age 13
March 14: A Time for Dancing by Davida Wills Hurwin – originally read at around age 11/12
March 17: Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip – originally read at around age 11/12
March 20: The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley – originally read at around age 10/11
March 23: Squire by Tamora Pierce – originally read at around age 10
March 25: Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine – originally read at around age 10
March 27: Magic Tree House: Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne – originally read at around age 8
March 29: The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen – read to me at around age 5/6

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Abby Wambach

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