In this context, individuals--writers, lawyers, activists--are challenged as well, and their lives are transformed according to the choices they make. Some, just entering adulthood, must find their maturity in the midst of all this turmoil and promise (baby boomer readers who came of age at that time might remember what that was like) and the young journalists at Downtown, Atlanta’s “city magazine,” serve as the lens through which the reader views, and understands, the special Atlanta situation. The novel has two protagonists, really--Smokey, a newly-minted young writer, and the city itself.
So much has changed since then that it seems right, now, to revisit that time, and reconsider this view of the South in a more hopeful period of social and economic progress. It wasn’t really that long ago, but it feels like a long-gone era to me right now.
The title refers to the family patriarch’s dream of increasing his landholdings into what he envisions as a dynasty--an ambition defeated by his growing madness, by the uncooperative independence of his three daughters, and of course by an increasingly unstable economic climate. Though the parallels and references here to King Lear are obvious, I can't help feeling Lear aspect was overemphasized by critics. I read this as an “anti-Lear” in which the daughters are the main characters, and the story is not limited by the reference to Shakespeare; that is, you don't need to know anything about his Lear to read this as a complete work in itself. But certainly, Lear provides a dramatic context and much psychological and cultural resonance, as the author searches the soul of this country in the late twentieth century.
For me, in A Thousand Acres Smiley achieved that holy grail of American novelists, the Great American Novel. Beautifully written, with earthy humor, subtle insight into complex issues, and great empathy for its resilient characters, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1992.
The author of The DaVinci Code, and a slew of similar novels, found a mother lode of material for his fiction in the rich world of obscure scholarship and minor popular arcana that lurks just beyond the consensual reality of mainstream culture. Then, with the razzle-dazzle that has become his trademark, he mashes it all up, in rather sensationalistic style, into a genre of suspense novels set in famous places.
I include this story here because it takes place in Washington, DC, and anyone familiar with our nation’s capital can appreciate the puzzle box Brown makes out of that wonderfully quirky city: it's just made for chase scenes. Here, the heroes race (for hundreds of pages at breakneck speed) through DC’s unique landmarks and historical lore in search of the secret to enlightenment (or something--it scarcely matters what), in a comprehensive if questionable tour of the (not really) “hidden” history of the city and its founders’ (purported) real intentions. As I said, it’s not factual (indeed it's larded - I suspect intentionally - with anti-facts among the true ones) but it’s a fun trip and perhaps a good choice for the last of the summer reading.
Actually, for Labor Day, I'm stumping my brain for novels I've really liked that deal with the actual labor movement. I can think of songs and movies and poems and art - but novels? Anybody?
Meanwhile, here's one of my all-time favorite lyricists, Malvina Reynolds, singing her classic "The Little Red Hen"... (with Pete Seeger and Ramblin' Jack Elliot enjoying the song):
Found that one thanks to YouTube channel of "peglegsam," who says it's from Rainbow Quest with Pete Seeger (a tv series I missed?), and the lyrics are there too:
The Little Red Hen found a grain of wheat,
Said "This looks good enough to eat,
But I'll plant it instead, make me some bread,"
Said to the other guys down the street,
"Who will help me plant this wheat?"
"Not I!" said the dog and the cat.
"Not I!" said the mouse and the rat.
"I will then," said the Little Red Hen,
And she did.
Well the sun shone bright, the rain it blew,
The grain of wheat it grew and grew,
It began to sprout, headed out,
Till it was ripe enough.
Said, "Who will help me harvest this stuff?"
She lugged it to the miller to grind to flour,
Cause the others would furnish her no manpower,
And at baking time they all declined
To help her with the job;
They were a dog gone no-good mob.
The bread looked good and smelled so fine
The gang came running and fell in line;
"We'll do our part with all our heart
To help you eat this chow!"
She said, "I do not need you now."
"I planted and hoed this grain of wheat,
Them that works not, shall not eat,
That's my credo," the little bird said,
And that's why they called her Red.
(This one's for Matt and Bert!)