Jane Smiley doesn’t do autobiography. You won’t find her in Ginny, the narrator of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Thousand Acres, or in any of the ensemble cast of her wicked academic satire, Moo. "I don’t write to investigate my own life or sensibility," says the tall, elegant author. "I write more to investigate the world."
Specifically, Smiley investigates America, both its inner and outer landscapes, and never more so than with her new novel, The All-true Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton. The author calls this book a look at "the intersection of ideology and violence in America." It’s a daunting subject, but as always, the author gives it a very human face. The face belongs to Lidie Newton, a gangly young widow who recalls all that happened a year ago, in 1855.
It begins when Lidie meets Thomas Newton, an abolitionist passing through on his way to his claim in the Kansas Territory. Lidie has no strong moral feelings about slavery but is intrigued by Thomas, who declares it to be "evil incarnate." When he proposes marriage, she agrees. "He’s appealing and he likes her," says Smiley. "She doesn’t have many prospects and so she sets off the way we all do — why not?"
Lidie’s sense of "why not" defines her. Marrying a man she barely knows and moving to a strange, dangerous place seems no more to her than an adventure, and Lidie loves adventure. She is, after all, the only woman in her home town of Quincy, Illinois, to swim the Mississippi River. She isn’t, however, the first wild spirit in fiction to do so. First came Huck Finn.
"I was conscious, of course, of Huckleberry Finn. Huck Finn grows up in the same period she does, grows up across the river, and they swim in the same river. But I was also conscious of Uncle Tom’s Cabin," says Smiley, who in her 1995 Harper’s article, "Say It Ain’t So, Huck," asserted Beecher depicted slavery more realistically than Twain. Smiley sighs. "The American myth is that things work out. But if we look out on American history, they didn’t work out. The real typical slave escape is that [the slave] doesn’t get away and everybody has to deal with that."
For Lidie, her stand on slavery, which people slyly refer to as "the goose question," is only one more part of the complicated life she finds in Bloody Kansas. She and Thomas face hardship, hatred, and violence as the free-staters clash with the slave-holders of Missouri.
Smiley, who immersed herself in research, is encyclopedic on the subject. "Ideology and violence came together with pioneers and getting rid of the Indians and making claims and claims jumping — all the forces of American history are present in Kansas," says the author. "All along the Kansas-Missouri border was something we would recognize now — Bosnia and Rwanda and guerrilla-type wars."
Bloodshed and hate, believes Smiley, are part of American heritage. Though they’re nothing new, they’re always devastating. The week Smiley began her book tour for Moo, she found another link between the past and the present, another manifestation of American ideology and violence — the federal building in Oklahoma City blew up.
Such random slaughter occurs midway through Smiley’s novel, when Thomas is gunned down, leaving Lidie alone in a wild place. "I had lost every single thing, including . . . my very name and history. . . ." says the narrator. "I was a new person, one I had never desired or expected to be."
Grieving and in shock, Lidie discovers that like Thomas’s murderers, she, too, is capable of rage. "I wanted to kill something, preferably a Missourian, preferably more than one." She cuts off her hair, dresses like a man, and sets out into hostile Missouri to avenge her husband’s death. But Lidie’s plans unravel when she falls ill and is taken in and cared for at a beautiful southern plantation.
Lidie, who has never paid much attention to slaves before, meets Lorna, a strong-willed slave, a woman rich in humanity. Though the plantation owner treats his slaves well, "the mere fact of being a slave is galling and appalling to Lorna, and it should be," says Smiley. "That’s why I didn’t do a Simon Legree sort of thing — we don’t have to ponder the worst case in order to ponder the moral outrage." When Lidie decides she must move on, Lorna announces, "Well, you is takin’ me wid ya."
Just as Lidie assumes disguises, The All-true Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton is a call for freedom and tolerance dressed as page-turner, a ripping good read. "Every novel I write is political," says the author. "It’s not possible to suspend your critique of the world and enter into some sort of pure apolitical realm. Your political views and your moral views connect you in a responsible way to other people, to society."
Connection to others, to what is real, resonates with Smiley. Winning the Pulitzer, she admits, was nice, but it didn’t change her life. "It made me famous, but that’s something that exists in other people’s minds. Becoming a mother at 43, buying a horse at 42, that changed my life." Indeed, Smiley’s affinity for horses comes through in the novel with Jeremiah, Lidie’s own beloved gray.
Being a mother and a raiser of horses has taken Smiley away from working in her head to an awareness of herself. "I went from being a teacher of literature and a writer to being a student of a whole different set of life questions — a student of riding, a student of [the] body, a student of fear, of horse psychology, horse care. I went from being in the advanced class back to being in kindergarten, which is not what I thought was going to happen," says the author, still surprised. "It has been wonderful and it has been painful. It opened me up. It changed who I was."
This is where Smiley, who does not do autobiography, turns out to have something in common with lanky, guileless Lidie. They share the same why-not attitude. "I think her voice is similar to mine. I certainly felt comfortable writing in her voice," admits Smiley. "And I’m tall."
Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami, Florida.