When Farmers Are the Focus of Fiction

From the trailer for the movie version of Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres novel. (Screen shot by me.)

One might think novels fully or partly set on farms would tend to be low-key or even boring. Far from true, of course, because human emotions are complex and events can be quite dramatic whether the milieu is rural, suburban, or urban.

Yes, novels featuring farmers often include family discord, marital problems, characters fleeing rural life, backbreaking work, awful weather, money troubles, takeovers by agribusiness, etc. And it almost goes without saying that there are uplifting times, too.

A Thousand Acres, which I read last week, is a prime example of a “farm novel” with multiple layers. Jane Smiley’s Iowa-set book focuses on the fraught relationship between three adult sisters and the even more fraught relationship between that trio and their publicly respected but privately despicable widowed farmer father. It’s painful to read about the dark moments the Cook family goes through, but well worth the effort as the King Lear-influenced novel gets more riveting with each chapter after a slow start. A skillfully written and psychologically nuanced book much deserving of its 1992 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Also set in Iowa farm country is W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe, better known for inspiring the movie Field of Dreams. More about baseball and father-son bonds than farming, but the rural setting is indelible.

Over in Tennessee, Dellarobia Turnbow of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior is a farm woman dissatisfied with her marriage and life in general who tries to do something about that — even as the novel’s overarching theme is about the sadly disastrous effects of climate change. Not surprisingly, Kingsolver had a rural upbringing (in Kentucky).

Willa Cather spent some of her childhood on the Nebraska prairie, which is the partial setting of perhaps her best novel: My Antonia. Antonia Shimerda is a farm woman, and the book’s main character is her friend-from-childhood Jim Burden, who moves to the city but continues to feel a strong pull toward his rural roots.

The title character of John Edward Williams’ Stoner novel also leaves the farm (William Stoner becomes a University of Missouri literature professor). But, as is the case with Jim Burden, his farm upbringing has a big formative influence on him.

In Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie Crawford’s first marriage is to a farmer. Things do not end well.

R.D. Blackmore’s Lorna Doone focuses on farmer John Ridd and his risky love for Lorna in 17th-century England. The book’s long-ago time frame is a reminder that there was of course more farmland when the world was less populated, meaning a larger percentage of older novels have a rural setting.

Heck, even my densely populated state of New Jersey had lots of open space a century ago, and rural NJ is the setting for Albert Payson Terhune’s His Dog — about a struggling farmer whose life changes enormously when he takes in an amazing canine.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath opens in Oklahoma — where a devastating drought, The Great Depression, and rapacious agribusiness force the Joad family off their farm. They head to California, where roving farm workers such as themselves are treated horribly by rich landowners.

Another book with a farm setting is E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, beloved by many younger readers (and many older ones, too).

Then there’s George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a satirical fable that can hardly be called a “farm novel.” But there IS the word “Farm” in the title. 🙂

Any farm-set novels you’d like to mention? (Including ones set outside the United States; my post is mostly U.S.-centric.)

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about a way-too-pricey bridge replacement — is here.

96 thoughts on “When Farmers Are the Focus of Fiction

  1. Thank you for this post. “A Thousand Acres” sounds like a very interesting read. I am going to check it out. I would like to add Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey to your list because a farm is very much at the center of the action. As for non-fiction, I recommend A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. His essays are poetry.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, vanaltman, for those two recommendations! I’ve never read Zane Grey; I should give him a try. 🙂 “A Thousand Acres” is definitely an excellent novel, after a bit of a slow start.


  2. I guess Prison Farms would also be a mention here so I’ll add Cool Hand Luke by Donn Pearce which is pretty much a biography re: his own experiences having been sentenced to serve time on a Prison Farm. It was there he developed his writing skills. BTW he debunks in a rather humourous fashion that famous line “What we have here is a failure to communicate,” i.e. Pearce was quoted as saying, “The guards were 100% redneck without multi-syllable vocabularies who would have never said such an intellectually astute phrase.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Not Pertinent To The Week’s Topic, But:

    At first I was gratified to find that his methods were known 200 years ago, but then I was sad: if only more WH reporters read Byron, they could not have thought there was anything novel about Trump’s political tactics and their relation– or lack of same– to truth:

    “…A reasonable reason,
    If good, is none the worse for repetition;
    If bad, the best way’s certainly to tease on,
    And amplify: you lose much by concision,
    Whereas insisting in or out of season
    Convinces all men, even a politician;
    Or– what is just the same– it wearies out.
    So the end’s gained, what signifies the route?”
    —“Don Juan”, Canto the Fifteenth, Verse LI

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! Great verse. Yes, in a certain sense there’s nothing new about the vile Trump and his vile words and vile actions, though in another sense he’s an “original.”


  4. Forgot to mention from my previous creepy farm fiction post, King’s Children Of The Corn and 1922 as well as Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home. Yikes, farms that went south, ha! Susi

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I haven’t read A Thousand Acres, although since I was born and raised in Iowa, sounds like I might enjoy it. A lot of the farm-themed novels I thought of have been mentioned already (Grapes of Wrath of course being my favorite and the first to pop into my head). Can we include the Martian by Andy Weir? The main character does end up farming potatoes on Mars!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, MB! I love that outside-the-box mention of “The Martian”! 🙂 The stranded protagonist did indeed have to become a farmer, among other things.

      “A Thousand Acres” is mostly downbeat, but I’m glad I read it — and I have a feeling it will stick in my mind for a while.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I lived on a hardscrabble TN farm for a short while when I was 20, and there were cracks in the walls through which you could see outdoors, and no running water, and heat was to be had through the burning of wood in the kitchen stove. I slept with a Persian rug over my blankets, fished for supper sometimes, and generally came to the opposite conclusion to that sung by Eddie Albert in “Green Acres”:

    Land stretching out so far and wide/
    Keep Manhattan and gimme that countryside!

    (I’ll take Manhattan.)


    It’s been so long since as a boy I cracked the spine of a book by Laura Ingalls Wilder that all I retain today is the sense of pervading dread that attended “The Long Winter” when food and fuel was in short supply– comforted, even then, as I recall, by the certain knowledge the family would pull through, or at least most members, since the book was not the last in the series. That dread, and, of course, the death of Old Jack, whose slow dragging of his canine self on and off the carpet by the stove moved me to the sort of tearful reaction I had later to expend on Eliza as she hopped from bergette to bergette in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, another book centered around farming, with an emphasis on a peculiar institution intrinsic to plantation labor: slavery.

    Slavery as a means to produce agricultural yield for the profit of ownership was likewise intrinsic to farming in Pushkin’s Russia, where slaves toiled in vast holdings owned by Russia’s nobility and Tsar. There is more to contrast than compare between “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Eugene Onegin”, but, as a moral matter, chief among contrasts is the fact that Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a staunch and energetic abolitionist, while Pushkin himself owned 200 serfs, and his hero Onegin, while introducing reform on his large estate, may have been master of thousands.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Dave how about ” Good Earth ” whuch is a historical fiction novel by Pearl S. Buck published in 1931. I may still have the book, , I remember I read the book as a teenager..

    It is about family life in a Chinese village in the 20th Century.
    The author Pearl S. Buck , grew up in China as the daughter of an American Missionary.
    The book won the Pulitzer Prize and then Nobel Prize in Literature.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. An interesting and fascinating article. So many titles have been mentioned by you and in the comments (many of which are sadly new to me) that I don’t know what to add
    In Italy a film comes to mind: “l’albero degli zoccoli/The Tree of Wooden Clogs”, by Ermanno Olmi concerning peasant life in a farmhouse of the late 19th century.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. Konstantine Levin in “Anna Karenina” is more of an aristocratic landowner than a farmer but the scene where he is mowing grass along with his peasants is one of the most memorable in the novel.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Susi! L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” is a VERY nice mention! That Kansas farm…

      Creepy? Sometimes that can work in a novel! “Foe” certainly seems to have gotten plenty of four- and five-star reviews online.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I have read a number of novels set on farms, whether set in the USA or another country, that have all struck me with the harsh life of growing up on a farm. The most recent book I’ve read about farm life that has left a great impression on me is not a work of fiction but a memoir by Sarah Smarsh, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth (USA, 2018), about growing up on a poor Kansas farm. It’s one of those real-life stories upon which writers build great works of fiction.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Rosaliene! Yes, farm life is often quite harsh — certainly not the bucolic pleasure it’s sometimes depicted as. That memoir you mentioned sounds powerful, as some memoirs can be. The stories in the best ones can not only inspire fiction writers but almost read like great fiction in and of themselves.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. The moment you mentioned farms, Dave, my first thought went back to my childhood and the book “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” which was the first time that I saw my name in a title. It would be many years before I would read “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier.

    Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm was written in 1903 by Kate Douglas Wiggin. Rebecca is a bright, imaginative child that leave Sunnybrook farm to live with two aunts, one stern (Miranda) and one kind (Jane),in the fictional village of Riverboro, Maine. Rebecca’s joy for life inspires her aunts, which reminded me of Anne of Green Gables, another farm story.

    I wondered if L.M. Montgomery was inspired by this story when she wrote about our beloved Anne (Ann wit an E) starting in 1905.

    In their article Constance Classen and David Howes, state that “ In this chapter we will attempt to show that, however dear a Canadian symbol and success story Anne of Green Gables may have become, it is patterned after a foreign work, the American children’s classic Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.”http://canadianicon.org/table-of-contents/mirror-images-anne-of-green-gables-and-rebecca-of-sunnybrook-farm/

    This is a very long article so please don’t feel obligated to read it. Why I mention these two “farm books” is that writers have many influences and see the past through the lens of their experience. I loved both Rebecca and Anne. And then there was Pollyanna… but that is another story.

    “It would be false to say that one could ever be alone when one has one’s lovely thoughts to comfort one.”Kate Douglas Wiggin, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm

    Liked by 7 people

  12. Hi Dave, you are right that farms formed the setting for more older books than current ones. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about her father’s quest to become a farmer. I think he was more of a pioneer and adventurer than a farmer though. Anne of Green Gables is also set on a farm, as is Emily of New Moon, a hard life for the menfolk especially. Mind you, I suppose the women had it just as hard raising families and keeping homes going. Herman Charles Bosman set most of his short stories on farms in the Groot Marino district of South Africa. Both my books, While the Bombs Fell, and A Ghost and His Gold involve farming and farms.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you, Robbie! Great mentions of “Anne of Green Gables” (there’s definitely a rural thread through much of L.M. Montgomery’s writing), Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work (which I’ve somehow never read), Herman Charles Bosman’s work, and your own books! Yes, farming is a hard life in many ways.

      Liked by 4 people

    • Anne of Green Gables immediately came to mind, too 🙂 Not quite sure if it counts since it’s more “gardening” rather than “farming”, but there’s also The Secret Garden…

      And then, very different, but certainly involve farming: The Good Earth and Gone with the Wind.

      Liked by 6 people

      • Thank you, Endless Weekend! Four great mentions!

        When writing the post, I thought of mentioning plantations — basically, large slave-labor farms — but was reluctant to get into those horror shows. Certainly great or partly great novels like “Gone With the Wind,” “Roots,” “Kindred,” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” would fit that category.

        Liked by 5 people

          • Oh, I’m glad you mentioned a novel like “Gone With the Wind”! 🙂 I decided not to include farms connected to slavery in my post, but am happy to have that discussion in the comments area. Thank you! 🙂

            Liked by 4 people

            • Dave, just a couple of days ago, “Gone With the Wind” was shown on TV, so beautifully filmed , the movie was perhaps four hours long.
              After an hour or so I could not watch the movie any longer.

              Decades have gone by , and now what do we see in America ?
              So much racial discrimination .
              White supremacists have come out of the woodworks and are demonstrating openly white power.

              Stupidity together with hatred.

              Liked by 3 people

              • Thank you, Bebe! Yes, the “Gone With the Wind” movie evokes such mixed feelings. A beautifully shot epic film with great acting, but the racism, the at-least-partial glorifying of the southern cause — ugh. Probably a favorite movie of many present-day white supremacists. 😦

                Liked by 4 people

                • Yep, there was a wee bit mo’ of glorification than condemnation of the Lost Cause, which was lost ’cause they lost, yet was found shortly after and made to live again.

                  The movie’s prologue, transcribed, from the strange profusion of capital letters, as if by a German:

                  “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South… Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow.. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and Slave… Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind…”

                  Perhaps the purple stuff above is a good enough moment to remind readers of Twain’s rant against Walter Scott, or more precisely against what Southerners made of his novels before Fort Sumter.

                  A confession: when I was 10, my sister 8, my mother escorted us to the local movie house to witness the latest rerelease of GWTW, and let us know this experience was a rite of passage, for which she had prepared us with sandwiches, lest we be tempted to wander out into the lobby during a crucial scene. What I took away most of all was the endless warehouse of wounded Confederates, and the very big fire. As for the rest, frankly my dear…

                  Liked by 2 people

        • Dave, thanks for mentioning the plantations. We have lots of books by Caribbean authors set in the sugar plantation of the colonial era when slave and later indentured labor was used. Huracan by Jamaican author Diana McCaulay interweaves three different generations of a white slave-owning family in Jamaica’s history to create an intriguing and gripping tale that connects the past with the present.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Thank you, Rosaliene! Those kinds of books are painful to read, but necessary to read. And it certainly helps when the point of view of the slaves or indentured servants is presented fairly and sympathetically. Owning slaves is just a monstrous evil, whatever the time or place.

            Liked by 2 people

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