Jane Smiley's game heroine prides herself on being useless, ill-tempered, and not that well behaved; in Illinois, circa 1855, a plain, penniless, parentless young woman should be anything but. Lidie, however, can ride a horse--and not sidesaddle, either--walk forever, write, and argue. All of these abilities will stand her in good stead when she and her new husband, Thomas Newton, make their way to K.T. (Kansas Territory) with a case of Sharps rifles and a desire to keep Kansas from slavery. Alas, "In K.T., it was often the case that every version of every story was equally true and equally false."
The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton is a Little House on the Prairie for grownups. Lidie's accounts of homesteading, from buying a new stove to coming upon the finest horse in the territory (and among the finest in literature), combine character, charm, and social history. (Smiley's chapter titles alone--which include "I Eavesdrop, and Hear Ill of Myself" and "Papa Is Cordial"--are worth the price of admission. "Papa," by the way, is an aged anti-abolitionist who wants to marry her.) But there is also menace. Early on, for example, Lidie pastes her home with "leaves of The Liberator and some other papers that Thomas had brought with him from the United States. This, he said, would serve the threefold purpose of advertising our views to our visitors, reminding ourselves of the arguments to be made in the cause, and keeping out the wind. Every leaf, according to the new laws of Kansas Territory, was treasonable."
Though Lidie once conjured up paradisiacal images of a "(weathertight and cozy) cabin," surrounded by fruit-laden trees, pure streams, and verdant grass through which she'd dally, "perhaps in pursuit of a pretty little cow," their tiny home is freezing and their situation fraught with fear. The Newtons' first months are filled with the exhilaration of new marriage and the difficulties of life in a hostile environment. Winter kills off several of their fellow radicals and "the southerners" seem bent on violently removing the rest. Lidie unfortunately makes the mistake of finding the season more formidable: "The prolonged frigid weather made even the prospect of being hanged, shot, dismembered, killed or otherwise cleared out rather an abstract one. The possibility of being frozen to death was distinctly more likely."
In her acknowledgments, Smiley thanks David Dary, the fine historian of the West, and The All-True Travels is a superb reinvention. Who would have thought that a shipboard meal would be more like a pitched battle, or that--as Lidie soon discovers--sentiment would turn out to be "a cruel joke in K.T."? At a certain point in the novel, however, the historical and social fabric becomes almost overwhelmingly dense. But after her hero and heroine are ambushed by southerners, Smiley pares down the details and explores Lidie's character and conscience (as she is forced into a series of memorable guises), and her "all-true travels" take on emotional and ethical complexity.
From Publishers Weekly
An immensely appealing heroine, a historical setting conveyed with impressive fidelity and a charming and poignant love story make Smiley's (A Thousand Acres) new novel a sure candidate for bestseller longevity. Lidie Harkness, a spinster at 20, is an anomaly in 1850s Illinois. She has an independent mind, a sharp tongue and a backbone; she prefers to swim, shoot, ride and fish rather than spend a minute over the stove or with a darning needle. That makes her the perfect bride for Bostonian abolitionist Thomas Newton, who courts and marries her in a few days while enroute to Lawrence, K.T. (Kansas Territory), with a box of Sharps rifles. As the newlyweds gingerly come to know each other, they are plunged into the turmoil between pro-slavery Border Ruffians from Missouri and K.T. Free Staters, an increasingly savage conflict that presages the Civil War. Smiley evokes antebellum life with a depth of detail that easily equals Russell Banks's exploration of the same terrain in Cloudsplitter (Forecasts, Dec. 1, 1997). Her scenes of quotidian domesticity on the prairie are as engrossing as her evocation of riverboat travel on the Mississippi. Through an exquisite delineation of physical and social differences, she distinguishes and animates settings as diverse as Lawrence, Kansas City, St. Louis and New Orleans. As Lidie and Thomas experience privation, danger and the growing pleasures of emotional intimacy, and as tragedy strikes and Lidie pursues a perilous revenge, Smiley explores the complex moral issues of the time, paying acute attention to inbred attitudes on both sides of the slavery question. Propelled by Lidie's spirited voice, this narrative is packed with drama, irony, historical incident, moral ambiguities and the perception of human frailty. Much of its suspenseful momentum derives from Smiley's adherence to plausible reality: this is not a novel in which things necessarily turn out right for the heroine, for women in general, for blacks or for the righteous. Lidie's character deepens as she gains insight into the ambiguous and complex forces that propel men and women into love and compassion, hatred and violence. In the end, this novel performs all the functions of superior fiction: in reading one woman's moving story, we understand an historical epoch, the social and political conditions that produced it and the psychological, moral and economic motivations of the people who incited and endured its violent confrontations. 200,000 first printing; Random House audio.
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