The all-true travels and adventures of Lidie Newton : a novel

by Jane Smiley

Paper Book, 1998




New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.


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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member labwriter
My major problem with Jane Smiley's book was that she wrote it in the first-person point of view, from Lidie Newton's point of view. Smiley had a terrible time putting Lidie into a position of being able to report on everything that was happening in the story. The bungled first-person attempt was
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often simply ridiculous. A writer of her experience should have known that she was writing herself into a corner, and she should have fixed it. It's a shame, really, because this could have been a good read. One and one-half stars may be too high a rating because I couldn't even make myself finish the book.
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LibraryThing member Boobalack
Boring. Dry. Too much unnecessary detail.
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.
LibraryThing member BobNolin
This was a disappointment. After 100 pages, I put it back on the shelf. The characters is "A Thousand Acres" lived and breathed. Lidie seems to be barely alive. She tells her life story in a bland, matter-of-fact style that is really quite boring (ironic, considering the bad press she received for
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saying the same of Huck Finn). At the back of my paperback edition, there is a "Conversation with Jane Smiley." The very first question speaks to why this novel is not a success.

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."
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LibraryThing member BellaFoxx
These are the adventures of Lidie Newton. She's born, her mother dies, she gets sent to live with her half-sister, her father's daughter not her mother's daughter. Then her father dies, they have a funeral. Her half-sisters discuss what should be done with her. She is married off to an abolitionist
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and leaves for Kansas. They travel in a steamboat. They stake a claim, build a cabin of sorts, sleep on a hand sewed bed that Lidie sewed, even though she tell us at the beginning of the book that she can't sew. Lidie chases away vermin puts mud in the cracks in the walls. Worries about her nephew, worries about her husband. They move into town for the winter and live with other people. People die and get murdered, good guys and bad. They go back to their claim after winter, and then we get to the "cold-blooded murder" that "invades her own intimate circle". By now we are more than halfway through the book.

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.
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LibraryThing member aliciamalia
I've read Jane Smiley's novels in the past, and have liked them for the most part. This book, unfortunately, falls far short of the mark--it's just plain bad.
LibraryThing member debnance
My first Smiley. Nothing grand, but a nice story.
LibraryThing member marysargent
Excellent. About a woman who moves to Kansas with her new husband in the 1850's with all the pre-Civil War turmoil going on. I have a vague idea of this period from reading American history, but never had a sense of what it must have been like to live it. Smiley is really good at giving you a sense
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of that. Though for me, it's not at the level of Horse Heaven for how much I loved it, or Greenlanders for how it impresses me and haunts me, it's way up there.
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LibraryThing member hredwards
Good story. A little dry, but nice historical research.
LibraryThing member FionaCat
excellent historical novel. Probably my favorite Smiley novel. Great characters, esp. the horse. :)
LibraryThing member Castlelass
Protagonist Lydia (Lidie) Newton delivers a first-hand fictional account of life in the mid-1850’s for an adventurous, unconventional, and smart woman. She is twenty years old, and her older sisters worry about their youngest sister, as they believe she will become a spinster due to her
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independent spirit, plain looks, and refusal to marry an older widower with many children (whose previous wives have died of disease or infections from childbirth). Thomas Newton, an abolitionist, comes through her hometown of Quincy, Illinois, on his way to Kansas Territory. He finds her appealing due to her ability to ride a horse, swim, and shoot a gun. They briefly court, marry, and travel by riverboat to Kansas Territory, where Kansas is on the verge of becoming a state, and hostilities are erupting between the “free-state” abolitionists and Missouri’s pro-slavery factions.

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.
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LibraryThing member bjellis
I love books that give me a new perspective on history, compelling characters, and viewpoints that shift and show nuances throughout the story. Terrific. Appreciate the careful historical research that went into this (Kansas Territory just prior to the Civil War, with the race issue building) and
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that the story is told from the viewpoint of a character without a concrete point of view, who changes as she lives through events. A really good read -- I didn't want the book to end.
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LibraryThing member ljhliesl
The shortcoming of the audio book: Lidie knows how to pronounce "pince-nez" but not "Derbyshire." Which I guess might fit the character and her times, though if you Americanize the pronunciation of the county wouldn't you Americanize that of the spectacles?

This was a fine entertainment. Some bits
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dragged more than is ideal, but in audio, that doesn't bother me as much as in print.

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.
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LibraryThing member JosephKing6602
Overall, a good read! - I'd recommend it to Jane Smiley fans who like her wide range of novels. Good narrative description of an historical context that I was not aware of. The book started a bit slow, but the reader gradually became interested in the Lidie and what she was in the midst
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LibraryThing member debs4jc
I was fascinated by this account of a spirited young women's trek through the events of the Border War period in Kansas and Missouri. Lidie escapes the oppressive oversight of her family by marrying a man who is heading out to the Kansas territory. Lidie is excited about her new life, especially
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since she becomes genuinely fond of her new husband, but when they arrive in Kansas they find hardship after hardship awaiting them. Still, Lidie enjoys the peaceful times on their homestead. But when when the border ruffians attack the settlers, Lidie finds herself heartbroken. Soon she begins an altogether different journey.
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.
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LibraryThing member Gnorma
This book was especially interesting to me because I live in the region where it is set. This story depicts the conflicts before the civil war in the 'bleeding Kansas' era, and I found it fascinating. As soon as state was opened to settlers, abolitionists arrived there in large numbers in order to
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make it a free state but the pro slavery people had other ideas. The heroine, a free-stater, had to fear for her life. The places that I drive through came to life in this book. It gave me new insights into US history.
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