It’s time once again for another update in my Year of Living (Actually Reading) Fictionally. To kick off the second-half of this experiment I began with Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer-winning 1991 novel A Thousand Acres, a rich narrative of life on the Iowa plains that takes place around the time I was born. This book hit me personally in a few ways that I will discuss later, but first I wanted to draw out the two major writing lessons I gained from this amazing novel.
I would highly recommend this novel for anyone who is looking for examples of how to write intricate descriptions and tell an amazing tale at the same time. But what really hit home for me with this book was the story. Essentially a modernization of Shakespeare’s King Lear, Smiley tells the story of a father with three daughters who decides to leave his farm to two of them, and the consequences of that weighty decision over the course of a farming season. Needless to say this does not go down easily, and causes the daughters to each remember and respond to their awful histories in various ways. This reminds me of what I also face in the future: the passing down of a stake in my own family’s farm in Iowa. Many were the months I spent working hard in the hog fields or in tractors during the harvest, and yet I must admit feeling ambivalent about the prospect of taking on that land when my parents’ generation passes.
Another character named Jess returns to his family after spending years away in Canada to avoid fighting in Vietnam. When he gets back, he irritates the farmers that have been there for generation by speaking about organic farming and how much the chemicals used to kill weeds probably affected his friends’ abilities to have children. This character really resonated with me as I have struggled with these same issues. Things I took for granted as part of the family business (using Monsanto’s GMO seeds, spraying copious amounts of chemicals, etc) I now see as a principle reason for many of the food-related problems in the world. Coming to terms with this was no easier for Jess, who (*spoiler*) also does not stay to run his family’s farm.
All of this being said, this book was a great start to the second-half of my fiction year. Next up I will be reading Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club. And stay tuned to this space for more updates on my third novel and for some discussions on short stories and other topics. Thanks for reading!
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cats. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.