Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Thousand Acres

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992. No one won it in 2012. In response to the non-win of this year, Michael Cunningham, one of three Pulitzer jurors, wrote a piece for The New Yorker about why, or why he thought, there was no winner chosen. In this essay, he writes:

A proper respect for the mysterious aspects of fiction is encouraged by the Pulitzer’s guidelines, which are gratifyingly loose. The winning book, be it a novel or short-story collection, must have been written by an American, and should, ideally, be in some way about American life.

That’s it.

Smiley's novel is so much about American life that it's almost embarrassing to read, whether due to the raw emotions and familial relationships that leave the reader feeling naked and, at times, stripped of skin completely; or whether it's the knowledge of farming and farm life that she imparts so adeptly, knowledge that leaves a city boy thinking for the first time, "Wow, that all seems really hard."

A Thousand Acres takes place on a farm. Never mind where it is (it's in Iowa), it could be anyplace that people make a life, such as it is, from putting seed in the earth, watering it, praying over it, and waiting a predetermined number of days before learning if they'll make enough money to sustain them until the next growing season when it happens all over again.

The farm is just as the title says, one-thousand acres, in Zebulon County and has been farmed by the Cook family for several generations. It's a hard life, a life filled with days of routine and back-breaking work, but it's a life the Cooks have come to know; the only way of life they know. Larry Cook, a widower, has three adult daughters - Ginny, Rose and Caroline - and Ginny and Rose each have married men who work the land there, and their families live on the land and within walking distance of the house where Ginny and Rose grew up. They enter each others homes without knocking, making coffee at will, preparing breakfast or dinner, as though they are one big happy family. In walking to each other's houses, however, they're crossing land that is fertile with family secrets that threaten to push through the topsoil like weeds. There is no chemical to stop them, no farmer's trick that will keep such secrets from invading the lives of those who live and work the fields and threaten to do more damage than drought or hail.

The story is intricate, and the setting and characters detailed. The pacing moves with the monotony of farm life, yet is not monotonous. We are caught up in the chores and the fears of weather, with the cycle of life for farm animals and the importance of teamwork. The plot blossoms like tomatoes on the vine, each revelation a succulent piece of fruit to be savored on the front porch.

The Pulitzer finalists in 1992 included Mao II by Don DeLillo, Jernigan by David Gates and Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals by Robert M. Pirsig. I haven't read any of those books, so I can't say with any conviction that A Thousand Acres is better or more deserving, but I can say that it is "about American life." It may not be my life, and it may not be your life, but the emotions, the character traits, the fears and lost hopes and want of something better, if not for ourselves, then for our children, are attributes present in all of us.