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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.
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Jane Smiley's game heroine prides herself on being useless, ill-tempered, and not that well behaved; in Illinois, circa 1855, a plain, penniless, parentless young woman should be anything but. Lidie, however, can ride a horse--and not sidesaddle, either--walk forever, write, and argue. All of these abilities will stand her in good stead when she and her new husband, Thomas Newton, make their way to K.T. (Kansas Territory) with a case of Sharps rifles and a desire to keep Kansas from slavery. Alas, "In K.T., it was often the case that every version of every story was equally true and equally false."
The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton is a Little House on the Prairie for grownups. Lidie's accounts of homesteading, from buying a new stove to coming upon the finest horse in the territory (and among the finest in literature), combine character, charm, and social history. (Smiley's chapter titles alone--which include "I Eavesdrop, and Hear Ill of Myself" and "Papa Is Cordial"--are worth the price of admission. "Papa," by the way, is an aged anti-abolitionist who wants to marry her.) But there is also menace. Early on, for example, Lidie pastes her home with "leaves of The Liberator and some other papers that Thomas had brought with him from the United States. This, he said, would serve the threefold purpose of advertising our views to our visitors, reminding ourselves of the arguments to be made in the cause, and keeping out the wind. Every leaf, according to the new laws of Kansas Territory, was treasonable."
Though Lidie once conjured up paradisiacal images of a "(weathertight and cozy) cabin," surrounded by fruit-laden trees, pure streams, and verdant grass through which she'd dally, "perhaps in pursuit of a pretty little cow," their tiny home is freezing and their situation fraught with fear. The Newtons' first months are filled with the exhilaration of new marriage and the difficulties of life in a hostile environment. Winter kills off several of their fellow radicals and "the southerners" seem bent on violently removing the rest. Lidie unfortunately makes the mistake of finding the season more formidable: "The prolonged frigid weather made even the prospect of being hanged, shot, dismembered, killed or otherwise cleared out rather an abstract one. The possibility of being frozen to death was distinctly more likely."
In her acknowledgments, Smiley thanks David Dary, the fine historian of the West, and The All-True Travels is a superb reinvention. Who would have thought that a shipboard meal would be more like a pitched battle, or that--as Lidie soon discovers--sentiment would turn out to be "a cruel joke in K.T."? At a certain point in the novel, however, the historical and social fabric becomes almost overwhelmingly dense. But after her hero and heroine are ambushed by southerners, Smiley pares down the details and explores Lidie's character and conscience (as she is forced into a series of memorable guises), and her "all-true travels" take on emotional and ethical complexity.From the Back Cover:
"Smiley scales another peak . . . Lidie is a splendid creation." Kirkus Reviews
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Book Description Flamingo, 1998. Hardback. Book Condition: New. Published by Flamingo in 1998. Hardcover, 384 pages. New book. The book has not been read, it is in perfect condition, cover and pages are not damaged. Extra postage required for EU (exclude UK): 1.95 GBP and Outside Europe: 3.66 GBP. Additional postage is based on the weight and dimension of each parcel. Bookseller Inventory # 54602
Book Description KNOPF. NY 1998, 1998. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 0002257432