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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.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
An immensely appealing heroine, a historical setting conveyed with impressive fidelity and a charming and poignant love story make Smiley's (A Thousand Acres) new novel a sure candidate for bestseller longevity. Lidie Harkness, a spinster at 20, is an anomaly in 1850s Illinois. She has an independent mind, a sharp tongue and a backbone; she prefers to swim, shoot, ride and fish rather than spend a minute over the stove or with a darning needle. That makes her the perfect bride for Bostonian abolitionist Thomas Newton, who courts and marries her in a few days while enroute to Lawrence, K.T. (Kansas Territory), with a box of Sharps rifles. As the newlyweds gingerly come to know each other, they are plunged into the turmoil between pro-slavery Border Ruffians from Missouri and K.T. Free Staters, an increasingly savage conflict that presages the Civil War. Smiley evokes antebellum life with a depth of detail that easily equals Russell Banks's exploration of the same terrain in Cloudsplitter (Forecasts, Dec. 1, 1997). Her scenes of quotidian domesticity on the prairie are as engrossing as her evocation of riverboat travel on the Mississippi. Through an exquisite delineation of physical and social differences, she distinguishes and animates settings as diverse as Lawrence, Kansas City, St. Louis and New Orleans. As Lidie and Thomas experience privation, danger and the growing pleasures of emotional intimacy, and as tragedy strikes and Lidie pursues a perilous revenge, Smiley explores the complex moral issues of the time, paying acute attention to inbred attitudes on both sides of the slavery question. Propelled by Lidie's spirited voice, this narrative is packed with drama, irony, historical incident, moral ambiguities and the perception of human frailty. Much of its suspenseful momentum derives from Smiley's adherence to plausible reality: this is not a novel in which things necessarily turn out right for the heroine, for women in general, for blacks or for the righteous. Lidie's character deepens as she gains insight into the ambiguous and complex forces that propel men and women into love and compassion, hatred and violence. In the end, this novel performs all the functions of superior fiction: in reading one woman's moving story, we understand an historical epoch, the social and political conditions that produced it and the psychological, moral and economic motivations of the people who incited and endured its violent confrontations. 200,000 first printing; Random House audio.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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December 28, 1998
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Excerpt from The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton by Jane Smiley
I Eavesdrop, and Hear Ill of Myself
Let every woman, then, bear in mind, that, just so long as her dress and position oppose any resistance to the motion of her chest, in just such proportion her blood is unpurified, and her vital organs are debilitated.
--Miss Catherine E. Beecher,
A Treatise on Domestic Economy,
for the Use of Young Ladies at Home, p. 117
I have made up my mind to begin my account upon the first occasion when I truly knew where things stood with me, that is, that afternoon of the day my father, Arthur Harkness, was taken to the Quincy graveyard and buried between my mother, Cora Mary Harkness, and his first wife, Ella Harkness. My father's death was not unexpected, and perhaps not even unwelcome, for he was eighty-two years old and had for some years been lost in a second childhood.
I could easily sit beside the floor grate in my small former room above the front parlor of my father's house and hear what my sisters were saying below. The little bed I had slept in as a child was pushed back against the wall to make room for discarded sticks of furniture and some old cases. I sat on a rolled-up piece of carpet.
Ella Harkness's daughters numbered six. Of those, two had gone back to New York State with their husbands. Our three, Harriet, Alice, and Beatrice, were all considerably older than I, the only living child of the seven my mother had borne. Miriam, my favorite of the sisters, a schoolmistress in Ohio, had died, too, of a sudden fever just before Christmas. Some twenty years separated me from Harriet, and all the others were even older than she was. I had many nephews and nieces who were my own age or older and, it must be said (was often said), better tempered and better behaved. Some of my nephews and nieces had children of their own. I was what you might call an odd lot, not very salable and ready to be marked down.
"I don't want to be the first to say . . ." I could see Harriet from above. She squirmed in her seat and smoothed her black mourning dress for the hundredth time. She wore the same dress to every funeral, and the only way we'd gotten her into it this time was to lace her as tight as a sausage. The others let her be the first to say it. I leaned back, so my shadow wouldn't fall through the grating. "It don't repay what you feed her, since she don't do a lick of work."
"She an't been properly taught's the truth," said Beatrice, "but that's her misfortune." No doubt here she threw a look at Alice.
"I've had my own to worry about," complained Alice. Since Cora Mary's death, I'd been seven years with Alice. The easiest thing in the world for Alice was to lose things--her thimble, her flour dredger, her dog. If you wanted to stick by Alice, then it was up to you. She was a churchgoing woman, too, but whenever she forgot her prayers, she would say, "If the Lord wants me, he knows where to find me." That was Alice all over. Needless to say, I generally found myself elsewhere, and I would wager that was fine with her. Her own brood numbered six, mostly boys, so they were more often than not busy losing themselves, too. It was my niece Annie who kept the engine running at Alice's. Right then, in fact, Annie was out in the kitchen, getting our tea. It wouldn't have occurred to Harriet, Beatrice, or Alice to lift a finger to help her. It occurred to me, of course, but that hole of kitchen work was one I didn't care to fall into, because it was easy to see how those women would pull up the ladder, and there you'd be, hauling wood and water, making fires and tea, for the rest of your life.
"We could have sent her on the cars to Miriam. Young people her age seem to go on the cars without a speck of fear. Or Miriam could have come got her." This was Harriet.
They pondered my sister Miriam, a spinster who'd taught reading to little Negro children in Yellow Springs. Harriet's tone revealed some sense of injury that Miriam was no longer capable of being of use in this way. But Miriam had been a strict woman, the sweetest but the strictest of them all. Her fondness for me had been mostly the result of the distance between us and our lively correspondence. I knew that even if Miriam were still living and I had gone to her on the cars and tried to stay with her, the sweetness would bit by bit have gone out and the strictness bit by bit come in. But I missed her.
"Miriam was genuinely fond of her." Beatrice expressed this as a great marvel.
"Where is Lydia?" The sofa emitted a heavy groan. Harriet must have leaned forward and looked around for me.