See the difference, read #1 bestselling author Jane Smiley in Large Print * About Large Print All Random House Large Print editions are published in a 16-point typeface Six years after her Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller,A Thousand Acres,and three years after her witty, acclaimed, and best-selling novel of academe,Moo,Jane Smiley once again demonstrates her extraordinary range and brilliance. Her new novel, set in the 1850s, speaks to us in a splendidly quirky voice--the strong, wry, no-nonsense voice of Lidie Harkness of Quincy, Illinois, a young woman of courage, good sense, and good heart. It carries us into an America so violently torn apart by the question of slavery that it makes our current political battlegrounds seem a peaceable kingdom. Lidie is hard to scare. She is almost shockingly alive--a tall, plain girl who rides and shoots and speaks her mind, and whose straightforward ways paradoxically amount to a kind of glamour. We see her at twenty, making a good marriage--to Thomas Newton, a steady, sweet-tempered Yankee who passes through her hometown on a dangerous mission. He belongs to a group of rashly brave New England abolitionists who dedicate themselves to settling the Kansas Territory with like-minded folk to ensure its entering the Union as a Free State. Lidie packs up and goes with him. And the novel races alongside them into the Territory, into the maelstrom of "Bloody Kansas," where slaveholding Missourians constantly and viciously clash with Free Staters, where wandering youths kill you as soon as look at you--where Lidie becomes even more fervently abolitionist than her husband as the young couple again and again barely escape entrapment in webs of atrocity on both sides of the great question. And when, suddenly, cold-blooded murder invades her own intimate circle, Lidie doesn't falter. She cuts off her hair, disguises herself as a boy, and rides into Missouri in search of the killers--a woman in a fiercely male world, an abolitionist spy in slave territory. On the run, her life threatened, her wits sharpened, she takes on yet another identity--and, in the very midst of her masquerade, discovers herself. Lidie grows increasingly important to us as we follow her travels and adventures on the feverish eve of the War Between the States. With its crackling portrayal of a totally individual and wonderfully articulate woman, its storytelling drive, and its powerful recapturing of an almost forgotten part of the American story, this is Jane Smiley at her enthralling and enriching best. From the Trade Paperback edition.
Rather like reading a history book, rather than historical fiction. Good reference material.
It was a chore to finish this book.
The characters seemed stiff, but I loved Jeremiah, the horse.
Q: Explain the genesis of 'The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton.'
A: I was in Washington, D.C. during a book tour when I heard that the federal building in Oklahoma had been bombed. I then called a friend of mine and told him that I wanted to write about the intersection of ideology and violence in American life. Without hesitation, he said, "Kansas, 1850."
Later, she makes the following statement: "I've always wanted whatever I concocted to go down easily, and whatever was in it that was informational or thematic or enlightening to slide down practically unnoticed by the reader."
So her motivations are to teach, to enlighten, to improve our minds, and to do so she wraps it up in a nice story to help it "go down easily." Unfortunately, the story here is not engaging, the characters lie dead on the page, we can not empathize with or see the world through Lidie's eyes, due to the emotionless writing. So the necessary sugar-coating is lacking, and what we're left with is a diatribe. And a boring one at that. I see no need, at this point, to try to convince people that slavery is bad. Pretty darn self-evident, I would think.
In "A Thousand Acres," Smiley's anger about child abuse and male stupidity comes across loud and clear, but we are swept along because we care about the characters, and what happens to them. By Chapter 7 of Lidie Newton's story, I had lost interest.
I close with this "Notice" from the opening pages of Huck Finn, by Mark Twain:
"PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."
It has taken me far to long to get to this point. The narrative crawls, we know every detail of her life, even when the murder happens, she calmly relates it, tells about the fear and panic she feels, but with no feeling. There is too much description and too much detail. I didn't finish this book so I don't know how it ends, if Lidie found the killers and got her revenge, the book jacket promises us we get to know Lidie, by this point I didn't want to, I just knew that I didn't like this book.
There are many layers hidden within what appears to be a straight-forward tale of American western expansion. Smiley has written this book in the style of a 19th-century novel, as if Lidie is relating her travels and adventures, including elaborate descriptions, asides to the reader, and hints of upcoming events. The characters are lively and believable. The group dynamics are particularly well-done, showing both individual idiosyncrasies and power dynamics. Lidie’s budding relationship with her reserved, intelligent husband is one of the highlights of the book. As she gets to know him, she comes to admire and respect him. Though he is not entirely cut out for life in the west (he’s not what we would call “handy”), he has a clear purpose in his desire to end slavery, and the reader can understand her feeling that she has stumbled upon a man of integrity. In this passage, we see the growth in their relationship:
“And suddenly Thomas was with me. Rolling over that stretch of prairie that we had rolled over in such a state of innocence only a few months before brought him to me. I remembered how I used to feel his presence as a kind of largeness pressing against me, and then I would look over, and he would just be sitting there, mild and alert, taking everything in and thinking about it. That was the distinctive thing about Thomas: he was always thinking about it. You didn't have that feeling with most people; rather, you had a feeling that nothing was going on with them at all.”
She does not start out as an abolitionist, and in fact many of her relatives are sympathetic to the slaveholders. The dramatic tension is provided through the inner conflicts of the main character. Initially, she is at best ambivalent on the issue initially, but over time, exposed to the fervent views of the abolitionist community, she embraces it whole-heartedly. Her travels also provide an opportunity to gain knowledge of the slaveholder and slave perspectives.
This is a moving historical story with an authentic feel and deeply drawn characters. By following Lidie through her travails, the reader becomes immersed in the societal, political, psychological, ethical, and economic conditions that led to the violent conflicts. It is a journey, where Lidie learns and grows through her experiences. She realizes that beliefs are important and acting on those beliefs can make a difference in the world.
This was a fine entertainment. Some bits
I enjoy Jane Smiley almost always. Age of Grief didn't work for me, but its format -- three novellas -- worked against it as much as the novellas' content (misery).
Is it perverse of me that Greenlanders and Moo rank ahead of A Thousand Acres? I'm not sure whether this would be third or fourth, but "fourth" isn't so bad considering she's one of my favorite authors. I've read six of her books (and of them, Age of Grief ranks about eleventh) and I next look forward to Horse Heaven, which she said in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel was her own favorite to write.
A reviewer on Amazon said this was taught in U.S. history classes. That makes a lot of sense, because it's a great perspective on what is, for me, an obscure element in the lead-up to the Civil War. Missouri Compromise, okay, but after that the fate of Kansas and Missouri is a blank.
It took a while for me to get into this, but after the first 50 pages I got sucked it it was really fascinating. Being in the same geographic location added to my enjoyment of the story, the vivid scenes of life in Lawrence during the 1800's seemed so real. The early settlers to our state really went through a lot! Lidie is certainly a compelling character, I could not believe how much she endured and how she just kept going. It made for an enjoyable discussion at our book group. I would suggest this book to anyone who enjoys well though out historical fiction and/or fiction that explores how ideals affect the life of the individual.