Pulitzer prize-winning author Jane Smiley joins the club of noted
authors with recent novels set in the 19th-century United States --
there's also been Thomas Pynchon with Mason & Dixon and Russell
Banks with Cloudsplitter, a story about radical abolitionist
John Brown. Stylistically less extreme than Pynchon's novel, The All-True
Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton offers a taste of 19th-century
writing without being off-putting. Its strong-willed heroine, and the
triumphs and tragedies of the first twenty years of her life, will win
the hearts of readers as she struggles to define her own morality and
to sift some sense of victory out of ashes.
At twenty years old, Lidie Newton of Quincy, Illinois, stands at a cusp in her life. Her
father, an eighty-two year old who has been lost in senility for several
years, dies. Lidie's mother was her father's second wife. Lidie is
her mother's only daughter and her father's youngest. Cast upon the
turbulent waters of her exasperated sisters' charity, Lidie overhears
their plans to get her to provide for herself -- raising chickens
and trimming bonnets are the best they can come up with for her. Marrying
her off looks to be nearly impossible. Lidie is headstrong and plain,
too tall and a master of avoiding any sort of chore. Her talents run to
the "useless": she can ride a horse astride, saddle or no, can swim the
width of the river, can write, fish, and walk for miles without tiring.
Worse, I was plain. Worse than that, I had refused the three
elderly widowers who had made me offers and expected that I would be happy
to raise their packs of motherless children. Worst of all, I had refused
them without any show of gratitude of regret. So, I freely concede, there
was nothing to be done with me. My sisters were entirely correct and
thoroughly justified in their concern for me. It was likely that I would
end up on their hands forever, useless and ungrateful.
Enter Thomas Newton, a mild and quiet "d----- abolitionist" from
Massachusetts who is passing through Quincy on his way establish a
claim and join his friends of like mind in Kansas Territory. Lidie has
already caught a touch of the K.T. fever from the men of her family and
town, and the thought of leaving her nagging sisters behind for the
paradisically-described Kansas Territory is an attractive one. Lidie
and Thomas begin an accelerated courtship (aided and abetted by Lidie's
adolescent nephew Frank), are married and on the way to K.T. within a
matter of weeks. Lidie's trousseau consists mainly of a crate of Sharps
carbines (marked "harness") that Thomas and his Emigrant Aid Company are
smuggling into Kansas Territory by steamboat and wagon.
K.T. is hardly the paradise the handbills have made it out to be, but
Lidie meets the challenges of settler life with her trademark no-nonsense
forthrightness. Her new neighbors (and mostly eventual friends) give
her a quick education in the dead-seriousness of the slavery issue (the "goose")
for abolitionists in Kansas Territory. Thomas and his compadres aim to
fill K.T. with abolitionists so that Kansas will enter the Union as a
Free State. The Missourians just a handful of miles away want the opposite,
and Kansas Territory serves as a precursor to the bloody War Between the
States, a testing ground for the greater meeting of the two factions on
opposite sides of the slavery issue.
Lidie's nephew Frank, much to her secret delight, shows up, and he
and her new horse Jeremiah go a long way toward making life in K.T.
enjoyable for Lidie. Living in and around Lawrence, K.T., is far
tougher than Lidie had anticipated, but her good sense and dedication to
her husband serve her in good stead. Skirmishes between Missourians and
the citizens of Lawrence threaten but for the most part leave Lidie and
her kin unscathed. A sudden, brutal attack will change that, and Lidie
will be tested and will question her own moral stance in ways she could
never have imagined. The greatest question is whether her strength of
character and wry humor can survive the pressures of these challenges.
Far closer to A Thousand Acres than to her more recent
Moo, Smiley's latest novel puts subtle, biting humor in
contrast with the larger and more tragic story. The All-True Travels
and Adventures of Lidie Newton is a story of bitter triumph and
loss, told in the restrained writing voice of a young American woman in
the 1850s. Unexpectedly moving and full of life, this novel, while not
Smiley's crowning achievement, deserves attention and reflection.