Engrossing characters motivate story of farm family's conflicts

December 22, 1991|By Rebecca Warburton Boylan

A THOUSAND ACRES.

Jane Smiley.

Knopf.

371 pages. $23.

The strength of Jane Smiley's craftsmanship lies in her character development. You think about the characters long after reading her novels, being not quite sure if you read about them or actually lived next door to them.

This is not to say they are ordinary and well-adjusted nor intensely melodramatic. Ms. Smiley's characters are, in fact, tragic both in the Aristotelian sense of having serious flaws that cause them wrenching sorrows, and in the fatalistic sense of being the victims of the disorder of Nature.

These brilliantly wrought characters are part of a memorable landscape and gripping tale in her latest novel, "A Thousand Acres."

Ginny Cook, eldest of Larry Cook's three daughters, is the storyteller. Her saga includes flashbacks to the 1950s in an Iowa farm community, but focuses on her present, 1979, before moving on into the '80s.

Larry Cook, strong-willed patriarch and farmer, husbands his land as he does his daughters; dutiful, compliant Ginny (and her husband, Ty, with an enthusiastic faithfulness to Larry Cook and farming his land); outspoken, willful Rose (and her husband, Pete, who gave up his musical aspirations but not his ensuing frustrations to farm the Cooks' land); rebellious Caroline (and her law profession and eventual lawyer husband, Frank, who lives in the city and doesn't farm the Cooks' land).

CEarly in the novel, there are two conflicts. The first involves the Cooks' neighbors, the Clarks, and the homecoming of prodigal son, Jess. Jess confides in Ginny about his "missing years" -- his searching, and bitter losses. Why has he come home? He doesn't farm his father's land or use his methods. Jess has returned home no more at peace than when he left. His turmoils cause him to use the very people he purports to save. His alternating wary aloofness and intense confession make his real intentions lurk in menacing shadows.

The second conflict involves the protagonists -- the Cook family. It begins when Larry, on uncharacteristic impulse, decides to bequeath his farm to his three daughters immediately. "We're going to form this corporation . . . and you girls are all going to have shares . . . and run the show," he says. Ty, Pete and Rose think the idea is excellent. They are now in charge of a growing enterprise without waiting for the old man, who rules their bodies and souls, to die.

Ginny, the pleasing stabilizer, is willing to join the others, but her first task is to encourage Caroline, who doesn't want her father to give up his life in this summer. But when Caroline voices a well-meant skepticism about what this corporation would do to the family, she offends Larry. He leaves her out of the deed.

For a while, all seems idyllic for the two couples intent on making farming work in an era when it is failing elsewhere. Then Larry begins to grow crazy.

Any concern (and there is plenty) shown him by his children is angrily refused and accused as part of a plot to put him away. Violence and hurt stir up latent horrors and hatreds of Ginny's and Rose's childhood. Caroline's re-entry as their enemy and their father's heroic advocate only heightens the nightmarish reality that faces them daily.

Ms. Smiley brings all these characters to their final showdowns with themselves and each other with ingenuous control. She avoids making trite connections between cause and effect so that her characters remain sympathetic and complex. The reader stands on the outside, wanting to warn the characters of the potential abyss one step ahead, and yet not wanting to diminish the intricacies of Ms. Smiley's web of human flaws and Nature's fate. To do so would be to demean our struggle to survive amid life's inevitable tragedies, and to fail to appreciate Ms. Smiley's thoughtfully created characters whose wrestling with imperfection challenges us to do the same.

Ms. Boylan is a writer who lives in the Washington area.

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