The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton

by Jane Smiley

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 764

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 stepsisters who decry her unfeminine ways. Lidie craves a look for herself at the new frontier of the Great Plains, even as she welcomes the emotional and sexual mysteries of marriage itself.

Lidie does indeed find herself swept up in dynamic circumstances that relentlessly test her capacity for improvisation within a murkily complex moral landscape. Entrepreneurial river towns such as St. Louis and Kansas City stand in contrast to the moral citadel of Lawrence and volatile pro-slavery vigilante outposts. The unforgiving prairie winter of 1856 and the worsening political polarization of a nation entering the first phase of its pending civil war prevent the newlyweds from establishing their envisioned homestead, and Thomas becomes one of many martyrs to the abolitionist cause that spring.

Determined to avenge his murder, Lidie assumes the persona of a young male roustabout not unlike Huck Finn himself, and she pursues the possible killers into Missouri, regional logistics center for pro-slavery terrorism. Lidie’s femininity, however, is not abandoned as easily as her bobbed hair and comfortable trousers had implied: When an unanticipated pregnancy ends in miscarriage, she becomes the guest of a Missouri plantation Days family and finds herself immersed in the slave milieu itself, its luxuries surprisingly seductive even though she recognizes the theft of human labor and liberty on which they rest. Here again she discovers that moral absolutism of any stripe not only provokes dangerously inaccurate pictures of one’s antagonists but also pollutes one’s own capacity for measured action and thus catalyzes the kind of worsening violence ripping apart the national fabric.

Yet as her vendetta dissolves, she cannot sidestep the hard choices of her historical moment, for the family’s strong-willed house slave Lorna demands that Lidie take her along when she leaves Missouri. By agreeing, Lidie embraces the true message of her husband’s life and finds a more constructive recompense for his death, even as she must accept the unease of betraying the Dayses’ generosity alongside the considerable physical dangers of their undertaking. If Twain refused to present readers with the unhappy facts of the runaway slave’s life-or-death circumstances, then Smiley commits no such mistake: When their escape plot fails, Lidie is imprisoned and Lorna is summarily dispatched “down river” and out of the novel altogether, an outcome as haunting to Lidie as her husband’s murder—and far more guilt-provoking.

Saved from prosecution by her jailers’ unease with her transgressive femininity, Lidie returns to where she began her odyssey, in Quincy, but not for long. Upon traveling to Massachusetts to meet her in-laws, she learns how to tell a truthful story of “Bloody Kansas” that conveys its paradoxical lessons. Thus she finds herself writing this “memoir” itself, having discovered the healing power of narrative not only politically but also personally—for Smiley, the real starting point of social transformation.

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