If you read Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres, I recommend that you read Shakespeare’s King Lear first. Several versions of the play are available, including a subscription in forty parts from DailyLit.com, but I recommend the Folger Shakespeare Library’s edition for portability and explanatory notes. You will enjoy Smiley’s novel all the more if you realize what a loving, painstaking homage it is to one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. You will enjoy it in its own right, but it’s power is diminished, I think, without the side-by-side comparison to King Lear.
Smiley’s version centers around Larry Cook (Lear), a farmer in Zebulon County, Iowa, and his three daughters Ginny (Goneril), Rose (Regan), and Caroline (Cordelia). Larry decides to divide his thousand-acre farm among his three daughters, insisting he is saving them an inheritance tax. The daughters do not want him to do this, but Larry possesses a single-mindedness that will not be crossed. When Caroline objects more firmly, she is cut out of the deal. The family gradually implodes under Larry’s seeming madness, a suit to get back his land, and Ginny and Rose’s competition for the affections of neighbor’s son Jess Clark (Edmund).
Smiley’s story deviates from Shakespeare’s in providing Ginny and Rose with reasons — physical and sexual abuse — to hate their father. I have to admit that they seemed almost saintly in their accommodation of him after what he had done to them. Shakespeare’s Goneril and Regan were simply, as Lear put it, “unnatural hags.” Thus, I felt that Ginny and Rose had depth of character and complicated layers that Goneril and Regan lacked.
As this is told from the viewpoint of Ginny, Larry’s portrayal is never sympathetic, and though he cuts an imposing figure from Ginny’s point of view, he never quite reaches Lear’s stature with the reader. I was impressed, however, by how Smiley was able to take plot elements from the play and seamlessly incorporate them into A Thousand Acres without making the story seem stilted or forced. In the back of my mind, until Part Four or Part Five of the novel, I was sure she wouldn’t find a way to incorporate some part or other of the King Lear story, but she managed to do it every time. The story differs in the end, but not substantially so, and I suppose one could argue the difference is moot — the family is no less destroyed in Smiley’s One Thousand Acres than in Shakespeare’s King Lear, but in either case, you’ll enjoy two well-written works and explore timeless themes of “truth, justice, love, and pride,” ultimately making a universal story “profoundly American.”