Two distinct impulses—one political and one aesthetic—inspired The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton. Timothy McVeigh’s 1993 terrorist bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City awoke Smiley’s interest in the legacy of ideologically driven violence scarring American history, while her desire to create fiction in each of the major narrative genres led her to cast her tale as a literary romance—in her words, “a story in which the protagonist sets out on a journey and sees many amazing things.” Since the novel’s publication, critics have also speculated that in it Smiley underscored what she saw as the racist failures of Mark Twain’s classic boy’s tale Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), in contrast to the underappreciated Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) of Harriet Beecher Stowe, which had offered nineteenth century readers a far more honest and artful treatment of the political and moral turmoil engulfing the antebellum world.
By her own admission, “the DNA” of both books suffuses her own novel, a first-person account of an unconventional twenty-year-old heroine who is rescued from impending spinsterhood in the summer of 1855, only to be quickly widowed and abruptly thrust into activist politics on her own, all within two years’ time. Lydia (Lidie) Harkness meets and quickly marries the bookish idealist Thomas Newton on his way to join the abolitionist settlement of Lawrence in the still-contested Kansas Territory (or “K.T.”) just as violence over the future of slavery in the region—and the nation—escalates. Initially ambivalent about Thomas’s political passions, she joins him primarily because of her own restless spirit: Her truest soulmate in the staid world of Quincy, Illinois, is her twelve-year-old Tom Sawyerish cousin Frank, not the circle of demure older...
(The entire section is 764 words.)