Monday, April 30, 2007

The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton by Jane Smiley

One of those book-of-the-month club selections that I just got without knowing what it was about or who Jane Smiley was. I enjoyed it. It’s set in the 1850s and tells the story of Lydia Harkness Newton, a young woman who marries an abolitionist and moves to Kansas Territory just as the violence erupts there before the start of the Civil War. It does a very good job telling the story of that time from all points of view, including those of the slave holders:

Don’t you think that’s a terribly hard religion? I know it comes from that, but Papa said none of our family were Puritans like that, that the Puritans were hateful people, and even the Dutch couldn’t stand them, and so that’s why they had to go to the New World, not because they were persecuted, but because they were hateful. And I don’t think it’s fair that they should come to New England and that our people should come to Virginia, an utterly different sort of place, and that in the end, they should put their hatefulness and hard religion over on the rest of us, after all! And you know what? It was those very people that started the slave trade, just to get rich. They treated those slaves much more horribly on those ships than ever Papa or Mr. Harris would treat even a dog, even a rat! Papa said they used to have more slaves in Newport, Rhode Island, than anywhere else in the United States, until the Irishmen came in, and it was cheaper to pay the poor benighted Irishmen, who don’t know any better because of their religion, nothing and get rid of having to care for your slaves as a proper master does!

A lot of slave owners treated their slaves well and a lot of slaves, in the context of their bondage, were very well treated. In Smiley’s exploration, it becomes clear that it is not slave owners who are evil, but slavery itself, as a slave under the kindest keeper is still a prisoner who will seek escape, as the character of Lorna did, and, who, when caught, will be exposed to all the bestial delights of the “catchers,” a profession that draws the lowest sort of individuals, but a necessary one nonetheless.

Unlike a lot of characters in fiction, Lidie is someone I actually came to care about. When her husband and prize horse are killed by some Missouri border ruffians and she goes on a vengeance quest, disguising herself as a man and infiltrating the land of her enemies, it is a quest I actually want to see succeed. It doesn’t, of course. It wouldn’t be the novel it is if Lidie got to extract her vengeance from the men who wronged her.

I made up my mind that revenge was more complicated then I had thought it would be, but then so was everything else one looks forward to with confidence.

Lidie is a reflective soul, coming up with her share of aphorisms like this, but all well preserved within the flow of the narrative.

People in the west made a big house of words for themselves and then lived inside it, in a small room of deeds.


But children can be very early taught, that their happiness, both now and hereafter, depends on the formation of habits of submission, self-denial, and benevolence.

This last is not from Lidie herself, but from a book she is familiar with—A Treatise on Domestic Economy, for the Use of Young Ladies at Home by Miss Catherine E. Beecher—which Lidie refers to throughout the novel and which provides a contextual quote at the beginning of each chapter. Thanks to a little Internet research, I know now that Catherine is the sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who put her sister’s talents for domestic economy to good use, by asking her to take over the housekeeping while she finished Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

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