King Lear on an Iowa Farm

The moral tragedy of modern agriculture is so profound that reason alone may not fathom it. Jane Smiley has grasped mythic dimensions of this crisis in her novel A Thousand Acres, which was recently awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

The beauty of her prose makes this book hard to put down, yet the ever-deepening tragedy of the story makes it a book hard to hold. Her prize has been earned. Readers will be seared, enlightened, and - for this is epic tragedy - ennobled by their experience with Smiley's story.

This is the tale of King Lear, told from the point of view of one of the "ungrateful" daughters. An exemplary Iowa farmer, who has amassed a thousand acres of America's richest land, suddenly announces his intention to retire and bequeath this holding to his three daughters. The tragedy that ensues engulfs neighbors, community, and church (the latter a social center but a moral irrelevancy). Shakespeare's story is transformed by a new location and particularly by a new perspective, that of a daughter who accepts her inheritance with misgivings in order to accommodate the ambitions of her husband and her sister.

This is a story of hard work. The farmer and his predecessors had taken rich but swampy acres and, over a quarter century, labored to lay tiles below the surface to drain the soil for farming. "However much these acres looked like a gift of nature, or of God, they were not. We went to church to pay our respects, not to give thanks."

It is a story of deep roots. "To imagine ourselves living together somewhere else...was to imagine that we were not ourselves,...since what we had for each other seemed to grow out of our entwined history and to be specific to this place."

It is a story of desire for land, rooted in the labor of ancestors, inflamed by huge equipment and efficient chemicals that induce farmers to covet adjoining lands at the expense of their neighbors.

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Sojourners Magazine June 1993
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