Best Book of the Week!
Just by coincidence, it seems, I have read several books in the last few years dealing with the wars in Kansas over whether it would be a free state or not. Bleeding Kansas by Sara Paretsky was the first book I read on the subject and the least well done, not providing much background for readers who don’t know a lot about the subject. The next book I read was Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, much more poetic but concerned mostly with a son’s reaction to his minister father’s participation in the bloodshed. The Good Lord Bird provides more of a comic flavor to the time, but it concentrates on a portrait of John Brown. I just finished Jane Smiley’s The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, which provides the most background to the issues and a more vivid picture of the times.
Lidie Harkness is a tall, plain young woman who has spent most of her time avoiding her traditional duties and instead rides, hunts, and swims with her 12-year-old cousin Frank near their home in Quincy, Illinois. She is the only child of her very old father’s second wife, and her sisters are much older. When her father dies, she knows her sisters are at a loss for what to do with her and eager to get her off their hands.
She meets Thomas Newton, a New England abolitionist on his way to join friends in Lawrence, Kansas. He seems struck by the stories Frank tells him of Lidie’s outdoor abilities, and it is not long before they are married and on their way down the Mississippi.
Flyers are plastered all over Lidie’s brother-in-law’s store promising a settled paradise in Kansas, but the reality is much more frantic and primitive. Lidie and Thomas find themselvs in a bustling but rustic town and are soon trying to build a homestead from a rough 12 x 12 cabin. Of concern, though, are all the rumors about the political situation and the outbursts of violence against the mostly free-state settlers by groups of pro-slavery Missourians who are trying to force them out.
In this tempestuous climate, Lidie tries to get to know her husband and also to understand just how committed she is to the fight against slavery. The novel depicts its time and location vividly. Lidie’s is an interesting portrait of a young woman attempting to find her own place in the world and decide what she believes about marriage and the issues of her time.