#51 How Shakespeare, Baby Names, and the Tower of Terror Provided Proper Perspective on A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (1992)
[Editor’s Note: This was originally published on Pulitzer Schmulitzer! where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]
My daughter Lily was almost named Cordelia. Well, “almost” may be an exaggeration, but it was certainly in the consideration set. A little over thirteen years ago we were expecting the birth of our second child and going through typical baby-naming negotiations. We knew we were having a girl, so at least that narrowed the choices down a bit. Some names Gigi liked but I didn’t (Scout) and vice versa (Claire). And some we both liked but were summarily dismissed if it was determined I dated anyone with that name (Iris).
But one of my favorites was Cordelia. Honestly, given the passage of time I’m not entirely sure why I was fixated on Cordelia, but I was, and so it was on the list. To me, she was the youngest daughter — and most favorite daughter — of King Lear. Very much a Cinderella character in contrast to her two older evil sisters. To my wife Gigi, however, Cordelia was a truck stop on the way to Tahoe and there was really no getting around that.
So Lily it was. And Lily, and the whole naming thing, was top of mind recently as I watched my now 13 year-old scale a climbing structure affectionately known as the Tower of Terror. Actually, calling the Tower of Terror a climbing structure is like calling Stalin a bit of a grump. The Tower of Terror is the tallest climbing structure suspended between two trees in the United States. At the top — 100 feet above the ground — is a bench where you can enjoy amazing views, but to get there you need to navigate a series of supremely difficult climbing elements.
How do I know it is difficult? Because I’ve tried it. The Tower of Terror lives at Camp Augusta, a camp in the Sierra Nevada Mountains where my kids have gone for summer camp for years. And every so often we attend a “family camp” weekend where parents are allowed to join. So over the years I’ve attempted to tackle the Tower of Terror with little success. Some might say no success as I can’t even navigate up the first element called the Giant’s Ladder, which is a series of “rungs” made from logs that get progressively farther and farther apart.
So I was somewhat surprised (but pleasantly surprised to be sure) when my 13-year-old and her 13-year-old friend signed up to try their luck. As with any parent, you want your children to succeed, but the Tower of Terror was so hard that I was proud that they were even going to attempt to climb it. I either significantly underestimated both their ability and resolve or overestimated my own, or both.
I wouldn’t say Lily and her friend Kaelin raced up the Tower of Terror, but I would say that they handled it with relative ease. It is intended to be a team building activity, but the girls ignored that advice and each tackled it on their own, albeit at the same time. Friendship be damned. And although they approached each of the elements in a different way, they both ended their climbs victorious, sitting on the bench at the very top.
And as I stood on the ground far below trying to take pictures on my iPhone of Lily so very far away, I had one of those moments where I realized that my kids have and will continue to quickly surpass my skills in many different ways. And I’m not talking about the fact that they’re better than me at Minecraft, aerial silks, SnapChat or other things that they spend an inordinate amount of time on that I don’t. No, I’m talking about things that I can do. Maybe not well, but I can do them. Sam, my 15 year-old, for example, can beat me at both chess and tennis, and, embarrassingly, taught me how to make pancakes the other day. And now Lily can say without hesitation, that she is a far better climber than I am. Although these moments may bruise the ego a little, they provoke undoubtedly positive feelings of pride and joy.
So its on the back of that parental pride for my nearly King Lear-named daughter that we tackle A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, the 1992 Pulitzer Prize winner, #51 on the Pulitzer Schmulitzer! countdown, and a fine example of how things can go incredibly wrong in a family dynamic. A Thousand Acres tells the story of Larry Cook, the aging patriarch of a rich, thriving farm in Iowa, and his three daughters: Ginny, Rose and Caroline. Larry decides, somewhat unexpectedly and hastily, to retire and turn the farm over to his three daughters. For Ginny and Rose, who live on the farm with their husbands, the gift makes sense–a reward for years of hard work, a challenge to make the farm even more successful. But the youngest, Caroline, a Des Moines lawyer, flatly rejects the idea, and in anger her father cuts her out–setting off an explosive series of events that will leave none of them unchanged.
Sound familiar? It should because coincidentally (or not), Smiley uses King Lear as her framework for the novel. We have the ailing patriarch, a kingdom in decline and his three contesting daughters. In fact, as I was reading the novel I was wondering how far Smiley is going to mirror the Shakespeare plot. It turns out, pretty far.
The novel is narrated by Ginny (Goneril in Lear), the eldest of the daughters. On the surface she is self-effacing, obedient, submissive to both her father and husband. She is childless, the victim of several miscarriages and thus jealous of her sister Rose (Regan) who has two girls. She is also jealous of her younger sister Caroline (Cordelia) who has escaped the farm and rural life to become a lawyer in the city.
But here is where the book starts to veer from its inspiration. What Smiley tries to do with A Thousand Acres is to re-tell Lear from the viewpoint of the daughters. In other words, why did Lear’s daughters act the way they acted? Was Lear less of a tragic character than a fallen one? And once armed with the backstory lacking in Lear, Ginny and Rose absolutely become more sympathetic (although you will still roll your eyes at some of their behavior), and Caroline becomes a little less sweet than her Shakespearean counterpart. They all become a little more real.
And like many of Shakespeare’s plays — and unlike many of the other Pulitzer Prize winners — A Thousand Acres has no shortage of plot twists. The story moves at a fairly rapid clip (one exception below) and should hold your interest. I won’t spoil the specifics of them for you here, but rest assured battles are engaged, abuse (both physical and sexual) is done, finances are ruined, plots are hatched (and tilled), backs are stabbed, poison is prepared, estrangements abound, truths are told, cars are crashed and lightening bolts flash. Plowshares are literally beaten into swords, and honestly no character ends up happy (which I guess may be somewhat of a spoiler except that it would be expected knowing that the story is based on Lear).
So why not a higher ranking? First off (and the exception noted above), the book did get a little overly descriptive and tedious at some points. Seriously, it is about a farm in Iowa. There are only so many descriptions of soil that I can handle. But it isn’t just soil. Smiley describes every covered dish at the social, every vegetable in the garden. I appreciate a detailed pot-luck casserole depiction as much as the next guy, but we could have lost a fifth of this book with no harm done.
Second, and more substantively, as Smiley makes the daughters more real by providing motivation, she subtracts from the realism of Larry (Lear) simply by overloading the father with culpability. You can tell fairly quickly that Larry is enough of a douche to engender adequate rage. But instead of leaving well enough alone, Smiley turns him into Satan incarnate by introducing multiple additional motives for the two oldest daughters to hate their father. Not only did this seem unnecessary, but it also actually took away from his daughters’ newfound depth because their behavior seems much less complex given the introduction of the additional bad deeds.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, I simply did not feel good after closing the book. Obviously, there is an awful lot of misery in this tale. It was emotionally draining. It was dark. That being said, I’m not usually one to be that bothered by depressing stories. This one may have gotten to me because the bad stuff is never balanced out with any character redemption. Unlike Lear who at least gains a modicum of compassion and humility from his excesses, Larry learns nothing from his actions. Alternatively, and probably, I’m sure my reaction has a lot to do with being a father of three and reading a story that punctuates the power that parents have over their children — a power that can become lethal and suffocating when abused. But the fact that I recognize that rationalization doesn’t make the book any easier to read or take the stress out of parenting.
So how do you cope? Change the perspective. I recently read an article after Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Beau, died over the summer at the age of 46. In 2008, Beau, who was also a politician, had introduced Joe at the Democratic National Convention when Joe agreed to be Obama’s running mate. During his acceptance speech, Joe said: “A father knows he’s a success when he turns and looks at his son or daughter and knows that they turned out better than he did. I’m a success; I’m a hell of a success. Beau, I love you. I’m so proud of you.”
So next time I’m looking up at my kids (literally) as I did with Lily and the Tower of Terror, I’ll try to remember that even if there is a little ego bruising as they continue to surpass me, their successes are really my successes. Because really, it’s all about me.
Originally published at pulitzerschmulitzer.com on October 26, 2015.