The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley (1991)

General Questions:

What do you think of the accuracy and detail of the Iowa settings? How are they important to the book?

What are the novel's formal and thematic parallels to King Lear? What contrasts are the reader supposed to notice?

Which of these contrasts reflect social changes since Shakespeare's time?

What do you make of the fact that the novel is divided into 5 books? What are some important qualities of the novel's style and organization?

How reliable is Virginia Cook (Ginny) as a narrator? Does the reader's view of her change as the book progresses?

To what extent are we intended to judge her? To judge her sisters, father, husband and brother-in-law?

Is there a tension between the narrator's attachment to those around her and the fact that her account of their actions includes a critique?

What is the effect on the narrative that Ginny and her sisters always refer to Larry Cook as "Daddy"? Of the choice of names and nicknames?

What farm issues current in the 1980s are important to the plot? What does the novel seem to suggest about such issues as corporate farming, organic and intensive farm methods, capitalistic debt structures, the treatment of animals, and the effects of the high-capital requirements of contemporary farming?

What does the novel suggest may be some of the effects farm life can have upon family structure? To what extent are the Cook family's problems a result of their environment, and to what extent do they seem common human problems?

What are some feminist sub-themes of the novel? How does the gender division of farm labor and experience affect the lives of men and women alike?

Is the novel a critique of the effects of an old-style patriarchy?

How is the novel structured? How are themes of denial, family tension and repression manifested in the story?

Can you see this novel as an exploration of themes of aging and family care? Of good and bad parenting?

What importance is given to the theme of childlessness and miscarriage?

What are some aspects of the novel's exploration of "sisterhood"? What are its good and bad aspects?

What is Jess's function in the novel? What ideas does he represent?

How are issues of sexuality relevant to the novel's other themes? What was your response to the novel's portrayal of adultery? Did Ginny and Rose's actions seem realistic?

What is the importance of the theme of the lost or unknown mother? Why hasn't Ginny attempted to learn more about her mother until the point at which the novel unfolds?

Chapter questions:

Book One

Chapter 1: What are some instances of foreshadowing of future events in these opening chapters? What do we learn about the Cook family’s past?

Under what circumstances had they acquired their land?

Chapter 2: What do we learn about Ginny’s relationship to her sisters? Might there be hidden complications in these relationships? What do we learn of her marriage?

How does she respond to Jess Clark on first meeting?

Chapter 3: What had her mother’s great-grandparents and grandparents added to their descendents' way of life?

Chapter 4: What do we learn about Ginny and Rose’s relationship to their father? How is the issue of transferring the farms brought up, and how does each daughter respond?

What reservations does Ginny express about her father’s proclamation? What are her motives in accepting?

What plans do Loren, Ty, Pete, Rose and the others start to make at the prospect of land ownership? Are these plans evil? Misguided? Reasonable and conventional?

How does Ty respond to Caroline’s reservations? To family quarrels in general?
What private hope does Ginny continue to cherish?

Chapter 5: What do we learn about Pete’s past, and his relationship to his father-in-law and wife?

Who prompts Mr. Cook to continue with his plans to transfer the farms to his daughters and sons-in-law? What might have been his motives?

Chapter 6: What are Caroline’s reasons for rejecting her share in the farm? Are these spelled out? Might these have been good ones?

What are Ginny’s motives in attempting to dissuade her? At this point, what opinion does Caroline seem to hold of her father?

Chapter 7: What does Jess Clark confide about his past and beliefs?

What characterizes the transfer of Larry Cook’s land? Were these changes planned for and discussed? Might there have been some good reasons for such a transfer?

What aspects of the change are not discussed?

Why does Larry Cook exclude Caroline, and why don’t the others seem to protest or care?

Could there have been a middle ground between involving her in farm operations and disinheriting her?

How does book 1 end? Is the ending ominous? What plot expectations have been set up?

Book Two

Chapter 8: What did Mr. Cook think of his former neighbors the Ericsons? What had characterized their tastes and mode of farming, as opposed to his?

What background is given on Larry Cook’s habits and tastes?

What is significant about Ty and Larry Cook’s discussion of pig farming?

What do we learn about Jess Clark’s relationship with his parents? Why had he not written his mother?

Chapter 9: As the sisters go shopping after Rose’s hospital checkup, what opinions do they express about their sister Caroline? About themselves?

As a child, what had Caroline declared she wished to be?

At the time, what is Ginny’s view of her relationship with her sister Rose? Will this likely continue to be the case?

Chapter 10: What do we learn about the sisters’ rearing of Caroline after their mother’s death? From what restrictions had they tried to defend her? From what aspects of her father's behavior?

What unusual behavior does Ginny note in her father? What gloomy outcome does Rose predict? Why does Ginny delay in talking over these changes with Caroline?

Chapter 11: When Jess Clark eats with Ty and Ginny, what future plans does he discuss? What does Ty invite him to do? Was this a generous offer?

Chapter 12: What is the importance of the extended Monopoly game? What does it reveal about the players? Do the outcomes mirror or concentrate some of the novel's themes?

Where are Rose’s daughters attending school?

What unexpected purchase does Mr. Cook make? What happens to the cabinets? How do his children and sons-in-law interpret his behavior? Do they differ?

Chapter 13: What stance had Larry Cook taken toward his children’s socializing?

Whom does Ginny meet when she takes her nieces swimming? What prompts her to tell Ginny of her mother’s last wishes?

What does she recall and imply, and how does Ginny respond? What may lie behind Mary’s regrets and silences?

What does Ginny come to understand about her mother?  Are there reasons why she hasn’t  thought more about her? Why does she connect her mother with Rose?  

Chapter 14: What does Caroline call to ask?  What unusual act has Larry Cook done in her absence?

What does she think of the fact that her sisters have signed the farm transfer papers?

What prompts Ginny’s feeling that her family have failed? What disagreements surface at the dinner table and afterwards?

How does Ty assess Larry’s behavior? Is there evidence for his views?

Does he wish his wife to turn her share of the farm back to her father? On what grounds does he defend Larry?

Chapter 15: What interpretation does Jess give of his father Harold’s behavior? Will this prove to be prescient?

How do he and Ty differ on their views of agriculture? Would a partnership between them have worked?

Chapter 16: What does Larry Cook expect of breakfast?

What are some disagreements between Caroline and Ginny as they talk on the telephone?

Whom does Caroline hold responsible for her father’s problems?

To what use had Caroline put her undergraduate interest in psychology? Were her insights valuable?

Chapter 17: During his walk with Ginny, what topics does Jess wish to bring up? What has turned him against the idea of raising livestock?

What intentions does he think his father has toward him? Is he correct?  Would he wish to remain in Zebulon County working his father’s farm?

What parting act changes his relationship with Ginny?

Book Three

Chapter 18 Under what circumstances had Larry Clark extended his farm holdings? Had he taken advantage of the needs and weaknesses of others to underpay them for their land?

What does Ginny lose when the Ericsons move away? Does Larry Cook seem greatly affected by his wife’s death?

Chapter 19 What seems unusual about the circumstances of Caroline’s marriage? How do Rose and Ginny respond to the news that their sister has married without letting them know?

What action by Rose disrupts their Monopoly game? What seems to have been her motive? What do we learn about her past behavior, and that of her husband?

What news about Larry Cook’s misadventures further disrupts their gathering? What causes Ginny’s anxiety as they drive to the hospital in Mason City?

What contrast between Ty and Jess does Ginny form in her mind?

How does Ty advise she deal with her father’s vagaries, and to what extent does she agree?

What emotion do they both associate with Rose?

Chapter 20: What difficulties do Ginny and Rose experience in dealing with their father? What emotional strains are caused by the situation?

What is the effect of Rose’s anger on Ginny? On the reader?

What relationship does Ginny have with Rose’s children? (151)

On what policy toward their father do the sisters agree? In the event is it successful?

Chapter 21: From Jess’s remarks, what do we learn about Ginny’s miscarriages and their cause?

Chapter 22: Does anyone feel anxiety as Ty and Ginny assume a large debt on the farm? To what extent is Ty responsible? Ginny?

During their visit to the chiropractor, how does Larry behave to Ginny? Over what issues do they quarrel? (175) Her response? Does she try to make peace? (176)

Chapter 23: How do you explain the nature and meanness of Larry’s outburst on the driveway? What if anything has prompted it?

What does Ginny infer from his slurs? Is she correct?

Are issues of senility important to the plot?

Why does Larry choose to stay out in the storm? What memories are evoked in Ginny’s mind as she demands that he contribute labor to the farms? (beating, 183)

Chapter 24: During the storm, what does Rose tell Ginny about their past? What is Ginny’s reaction? The reader’s? (192)

Chapter 25: How are Ginny’s emotions of shame described? (195)

In the event, where is Larry found? What metaphor is used to describe Ginny’s emotions of the day? (horse in tight stall, 198)

Chapter 26: Why does the family try to conceal their differences with Larry from the outside world? Who expresses concern over a possible rift, and what are his motives?

What annoying views does Harold express? On what grounds does he side with Larry?

What has been lost in the bulldozing of Ginny’s former home? (206)

Chapter 27: What prompts Ginny to visit her minister, and why does she leave before he is free to talk?

Chapter 28: What type of food is served at the church potluck? Throughout the book are descriptions of food important in setting the ambiance?

What shocking events occur at the potluck? Who attacks first? What seems to have motivated Harold’s aggression toward his son?

Book Four

Chapter 29: What does Ginny remember about her mother? What does she recollect as she cleans her father’s home? How does she react to this memory? (229, screams) Does this strike you as unexpected/out of character?

Chapter 30: What causes Harold’s accident, and what are some of its consequences? What increasingly exacerbates tensions between Ty and Ginny?

How does Rose’s response to Harold’s accident differ from Ginny’s? (234) What does she resent about her father’s decline into senility? (234)

How do the sisters respond to Harold’s illness? Does this seem justified? (239) How do they respond to the shock of their father’s lawsuit?

Chapter 31: What startling news does Ginny learn from her phone conversation with Caroline? (Ty believes she and Rose had pushed their father into the storm by lecturing him; Caroline resents their raising of her.)  

Chapter 32: What is significant about her encounter with Pete in the quarry? Why isn’t he concerned about the lawsuit? What question does he ask her?

Chapter 33: What evidence from the past does Ty find, and how does he react to the signs of her recent miscarriage?

What is revealed by Ty’s hasty expenses? (256-57)

What does Ty tell her Rose had told him? (258) What opinion of Rose does he express? In your view, is he correct? (258)

How would you characterize his and Ginny’s argument? What had Ty come to resent? (feels she has made the farm less stable by criticizing Larry)

What is the result of her pursuit of Jess at night? (263) What event occurs to close down Ty’s plans for the farm? (bankers force halt)

Chapter 34: What is the essence of Ginny’s conversation with the minister? Does it concern religion? What seems unusual in her response to his well-meaning efforts to suggest reconciliation?

What does Ginny find when she travels to a nearby town? What conversation does she overhear between Caroline and her father?

Book Five

Chapter 35: At what age had Ginny married? What does she recall of her father’s entrance into her bedroom? How has the act of incest affected her future?

Chapter 36: What does the lawyer advise Ginny and Rose and their husbands to do? In what ways does Ginny comply?

What sudden event disrupts their circle? (Pete’s suicide) Was this expected? Does the violent death of one of the husbands alter the novel’s tone and outcome? The future of the farms?

Chapter 37: How do others react to Pete’s death and funeral? Who gives the eulogy and are his words appropriate? What remarks are made by the minister? Who fails to attend?

Chapter 38: What does Rose tell Ginny about her late husband, her relationship with Jess, and the cause of the empty water tank on Harold’s lot? Is she concerned for Ginny’s feelings? What had been a motive for her affair?

What opinions does Rose express regarding her father’s growing senility?

How does Ginny respond to these revelations? What new understanding of Pete overcomes her?

Chapter 39:  What new “comprehension” of those around her does Ginny believe she has gained? Is the reader startled when she prepares poison for her sister?

Why is her anger directed against Rose rather than her father? In her memories, how is her father presented? Caroline?

What problems begin to occur on the farm, in part as a result of Pete’s death? What does Ginny object to in her husband’s choice of hogs to slaughter? Are you surprised that she has a strong  opinion on such a matter?   

What do you make of her decision to prepare hemlock sausages for her sister? Does the plan make sense? How would you describe Ginny’s mental state at this point?       

Chapter 40: Why do the neighbors offer help for the Clark farm but not for that of the Cooks?

What seem to be some changes in Ginny’s domestic habits during this period? For what anticipated event does she wait?

How does Ginny describe her and Rose’s past relationship with Caroline? Had they been fond of one another?

How does Larry Cook behave in the court room? Are there comic elements to his answers? What is added to the scene by the echoes of King Lear’s grief over the body of Cordelia?

Which of Mr. Cook’s remarks pains Ginny? Does she react appropriately? What rather unexpected suspicions and metaphors run through her mind?

Do Mr. Cook’s responses affect the outcome of the case? Do the court case, the scene in the court, and its outcome seem probable to you?

What effect does it seem to have on the participants?

Chapter 41: What seems to be Ginny’s mood after the successful trial? Over what do Ginny and her husband quarrel?

What do you make of her request to Ty for a thousand dollars? Of the fact that he gives it to her, despite their financial constraints?

Has the reader been prepared for her departure? Ty? Ginny herself?

What is meant by her parting remark, “Now it’s yours!”

Book Six:

Chapter 42: What are some features of Ginny’s life in Minnesota? How does she respond to her new life as a waitress?

What kind of letters does she receive from Rose?

What important news does Ginny receive after the fact? What do you make of the fact that only one of the three sisters attended Larry Cook’s funeral?

Does Mr. Cook’s death soon after the trial cast any backward light on his prior actions?

What has happened to Jess Clark and the plans for organic farming? Is his departure consistent with his earlier pattern of life? What effect does it have on the book that

What do you suppose is contained in the “papers to sign” sent to Ginny? What has happened to the farm property in her absence? Would the profits from ½ of the farm have purchased more than a condo?  

Chapter 43: Who visits Ginny in her restaurant, and what does he give her? How does she respond to his visit?

What has happened to Ty and the farms during her absence? How had he reacted to the Cook trial? What decisions/economic changes had caused him to go under?

What has been Rose’s reaction to the decay of the farms? What opinion does Ty express of Rose’s accounts of Larry Cook’s past?

What do Ty and Ginny feel about their past marriage? Of what does each accuse the other?

What view does he hold of their past and the breakup of the family and farms? Is he forgetting some important facts?

What alternate account does Ginny give of the farms? Do her accusations relate to abuse, inheritance, farm practices, or all of these?

Had Ty been suspicious of his wife on the night Larry left to wander in the storm? What future does he expect for himself?

Was this scene useful in providing closure? Does the reader feel that it might have ended differently?

Chapter 44: Why doesn’t Ginny have a telephone installed? What happens when Rose asks her to visit her in the hospital?

After she returns to Rose’s home, what prompts Ginny to attempt to reach Jess Clark by telephone, and what does she learn/not learn?

What remarks does Ginny make to her sister in the hospital? To what does she confess? Do these revelations/attacks seem in character? Are they well-timed? How does Rose respond?

What had irritated Rose about Jess Clark? What had prompted Jess to leave? What does she feel about her sister’s desertion of her husband?

What provision does Rose make for the farm upon her death? What seems her motive?

Might she have been expected to make a different decision? In practical terms, will it matter?

What assessment does Rose give of her own life? What values are reflected in her remarks?

Chapter 45: How have Rose’s daughters fared after her death? Is their relationship to their aunt what she might have hoped?

What contrasting attitudes do Caroline and Ginny display as they sort through their parents’ goods?

Are they courteous to one another? Over what do they quarrel? Do some of Ginny’s remarks surprise you? Caroline’s?

What actions by Rose and Ginny does Caroline resent? Is she at least partly justified? What is Caroline’s view of her own relationship with her father?

What information does Ginny withhold, and do you think this was right/wise?

In the end, what does each woman carry away from her childhood home? What motivates Ginny’s decisions regarding household items?

What happens to her after she discards the hemlock-saturated sausages?


What do we learn has happened to the houses described in the novel? The farms and their legacy?

As the book ends, what seem Ginny’s final loyalties? Significant memories? What do you make of the final paragraph? What understanding has she gained from her experiences?

In your view, is the ending satisfying? Has Ginny been wise in cutting her ties with her past?

Is A Thousand Acres a good novel? What are its merits? What lessons, if any, about accumulation, work, family life, sexuality, guilt, and other matters does it suggest?

Are there any aspects of the situations it presents which the novel leaves out?

How would the novel have been drastically different if told from Rose’s, Caroline’s, or Jess’s point of view?

In later interviews, Jane Smiley comments that since writing A Thousand Acres she has come to believe in the power of forgiveness. How would an emphasis on forgiveness have altered the plot or our reading thereof?

How would you contrast the themes and outcomes of A Thousand Acres with those of Main Street?

Does this book remind you of other books you have read about Iowa (e. g. Bridges of Madison County, The Straight Story), of farm life (Giants in the Earth), or of American small town life or family conflicts?

Page nos. from Ballantine Books edition, 1991.

  Copyright © 2010 Florence S Boos, The University of Iowa. All rights reserved.
  Page updated: April 13, 2012 17:31