By Jane Smiley. Published in 1998.
When my brother showed me an old Amazon.com review that described Jane Smiley’s 1998 novel as “Little House on the Prairie for grown-ups,” I had to read it. It was just a silly line, of course, but I adored Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books when I was little (I read my copies over and over until the spines broke), so even though I knew that phrase probably only referred broadly to subject matter, I headed to the library to check out The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton.
Frankly, the comparison is rather glib—the Ingalls family and the Newtons don’t share a motivation for moving West in nineteenth-century America, nor do they face the same hardships—but the books do have one key element in common: a compelling heroine with a strong, straightforward voice. Like Laura Ingalls, Lidie Newton is independent without being anachronistic, relatable and admirable to a modern audience while still convincingly inhabiting a long-past world. In Lidie, Smiley has created a memorable narrator: thoughtful, honest, and worth following through her many picaresque adventures.
When we meet Lidie, she is a newly orphaned twenty-year-old with few feminine graces and no prospects in her small Illinois town in the 1850s. To her older sisters’ delight, however, her unconventional nature catches the eye of a quiet New Englander passing through, and within weeks, Lidie is married and westward bound. Her new husband, Thomas, is an abolitionist moving to Kansas as part of an organized effort to ensure the territory joins the union as a free state. Lidie adopts the cause herself and soon becomes embroiled in the violent conflict between Free Staters and Border Ruffians: Bleeding Kansas, a precursor to the Civil War.
Smiley did a great deal of research to write The All-True Travels, and it shows in the novel’s high level of detail. What makes the book most interesting, though, is her eye for complexity. A significant number of the abolitionists are just as racist as the pro-slavery forces: they don’t want slavery in Kansas, but they don’t want black people, either. Bands of young men from both sides take advantage of the turmoil to harass and rob their neighbors. Much of the conflict stems not just from the issue of slavery but also from broader cultural differences between New Englanders and Westerners. And late in the book, an anti-abolitionist figure points out that conditions for immigrants working in factories in the East aren’t necessarily much better than conditions for black slaves in the South and West.
This is not to say that Smiley indulges in mushy, pox-on-both-their-houses false equivalences. Whatever their failings, the abolitionists clearly are on the side of the angels. And as Lidie stumbles through the horrors of what is essentially localized civil war, she meets and grows to know several slaves, giving Smiley the opportunity to dramatize how soul-crushing enslavement is, even when one’s master is “benevolent.” In one her sharper insights, Smiley also explores how the paternalism of the “benevolent” master is connected to the paternalism of the “benevolent” patriarch, leading to a frustrating but thought-provoking confrontation in which the society’s patronizing attitude toward young women is all that allows Lidie to escape judgment for her actions.
Through it all, Smiley shuns tidy conclusions. Lidie’s world is messy and bewildering, hardly fertile ground for happy endings, and yet the arc of the story still works dramatically. In many ways, The All-True Travels is a coming-of-age novel. To Lidie, Kansas Territory represents the death of illusion—it forces her to see the world as it really is—and it’s not difficult to see the continued relevance of that kind of brutal awakening to reality. Perhaps describing Smiley’s novel as “Little House of the Prairie for grown-ups” wasn’t that off-the-mark after all.