The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton
Jane Smiley is among the most versatile of modern novelists. Her early novels focused on relationships within families; one of them had the structure of a mystery novel. The works for which she has received high praise have been more varied as to subject matter. The Greenlanders (1988) is a mythic study of ancient Vikings. A Thousand Acres (1991) uses the plot of William Shakespeare’s King Lear to investigate a contemporary midwestern farm family. Moo (1995) is a long and hilarious satire of life at a huge midwestern university. The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton is unlike any of its predecessors, an episodic, realistic historical novel about the controversy over slavery in the years before the Civil War. This is new territory for Smiley, but she clearly feels at home in it.
Lidie Harkness is the youngest of six daughters of an unsuccessful businessman in Quincy, Illinois. At the age of twenty she is tall, strong, and plain (another character calls her ugly), and her married sisters despair of her ever finding a husband who would relieve them of the sisterly obligation to provide her with a home and enough housework to keep her occupied. Lidie is adept at avoiding work and prefers to spend her time reading or partaking of such exercises as riding horseback astride or swimming across the Mississippi River, an adventure in which she is abetted by her scapegrace nephew Frank, an amazingly mature twelve-year-old.
Her life changes drastically when Thomas Newton visits a friend in Quincy on his way to settling in the Kansas Territory. After a brief courtship, promoted by one sister, Lidie marries the quiet man who is several years older than she. He has worked in his father’s sail-making factory in a suburb of Boston and spent several years at sea. Now he is headed for Lawrence, a “free state” town in Kansas, where he plans to homestead and to work with those opposed to allowing slavery in Kansas when it achieves statehood. He is sponsored by the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society. As part of his luggage he has a box containing twelve Sharps rifles, to be used by the abolitionists in the increasingly violent struggle with the proslavery faction. Thomas is a thoughtful man and he would prefer to see the dispute settled by nonviolent means, but he feels the antislavery faction must defend itself. His illicit cargo goes undetected as they make their way down the Mississippi to St. Louis and then up the Missouri to the brawling frontier town of Kansas City. The last stage of the journey to Lawrence takes place in the wagon of an itinerant teamster named David R. Graves, who is to turn up at crucial points in Lidie’s life on the frontier. It is Graves who informs Lidie and Thomas that the slavery controversy is known as the goose question; to be “sound on the goose” is to be proslavery.
A claim has been staked in Newton’s name, and the new friends the newlyweds make provide shelter for them in town and help Thomas to construct a rough cabin on his land. The early days of the couple’s Kansas experience are relatively benign, as they adapt to each other and to a land that has its attractions but is far from the Eden of the advertisements. However, violence is never very far away as Missourians cross into the Kansas Territory with impunity to vote in Kansas elections and to harass the antislavery settlers. The violence does not all originate with one side. John Brown, whose later raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, was an attempt to provoke a revolution that would end slavery in the United States, was at the time of the novel active in this area in raids on slaveholders, and he is referred to as “Old Brown.” His bloody raid on Osawatomie is one of the historical events alluded to in the novel.
Disillusionment sets in quickly for Lidie. The broiling Kansas summer is no help to the Newtons’ efforts to adapt to their new surroundings. As the year turns toward winter, they are forced by the cold to move to town and to occupy a room in the small house of their friends Charles and Louisa Bisket. Thomas supports them by going into the hauling business with Charles Bisket. Lidie’s nephew Frank turns up carrying a letter to Lidie from his mother, pleading with her to look after him, but Frank quickly proves to be thoroughly capable of looking after himself. He becomes a successful trader and a familiar sight around Lawrence, a cigar stub perpetually in the corner of his mouth. He soon falls in with a group of teen-age boys rumored to be active in raiding proslavery settlers.
The first half of the...
(The entire section is 1891 words.)