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Books: Plain talk from the prairies

Penelope Lively treks to the frontier but finds the Old West more mild than wild; The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton by Jane Smiley Flamingo, pounds 16.99, 452pp
THESE ARE boom years for the historical novel. Once a poor relation, distinctly downmarket, it is now the favoured form for serious fiction. John Fowles and J G Farrell pointed the way, lifting the past out of its perceived ghetto of genre writing and showing how it can be used to complement and inform the present, quite as much as vice versa.

Jane Smiley is not writing in this tradition, except perhaps in her use of a female heroine. Her historical offering is picaresque adventure: a 19th-century novel written at the end of the 20th, with a deliberate bow - or gesture of defiance - in the direction of Mark Twain. Her protagonist goes up the Mississippi, encounters every kind of hazard, and finally acquires a black slave companion, on the run.

Lidie, however, is no Huck Finn. She is a somewhat sombre 20-year-old, plain thinking, plain speaking and no beauty. One effect of first- person narration is that the reader wants to identify with the narrator or stand at a critical angle. The problem about Lidie is that it is hard to do either. She has a pedestrian quality despite her robust behaviour and her spirited response to hardship. She can be a ponderous presence on pages frequently lit up with arresting set-piece scenes, and which build to a fine galloping climax in the best adventure tradition.

The first half is slow, despite hectic happenings. Lidie is an orphan, farmed out to relatives. But she is a girl who despises the domestic arts and is happier on a horse, or swimming the Mississippi near her home town of Quincy, Illinois. When Thomas Newton comes along, a serious abolitionist heading for Kansas Territory, she responds to his courtship and sets off west with him. The river journey takes them to Kansas City and eventually to Lawrence, where the couple fall in with a group of Free Staters.

They have arrived on the fermenting interface between Kansas Territory and Missouri, with its "Border Ruffians" glaring across at the abolitionist immigrants from New England. The place is in turmoil, the Civil War is lurking in the wings, the Missourians are trigger-happy. The incomers are determined to be true settlers, stake their claims and "make do, do without or do it anyway". But for the Missourians, all that matters is whether or not a person is pro-slavery.

Lidie, true to form, is more interested in buying a horse than the stove that will be the essential heart of the cabin that must be built. The horse, indeed, is to become a crucial element and a well-rounded character in his own right. There is some evocative writing about the travails of pioneer life: the cabin 12 foot by 12, built of green logs, with a roof of white sail; the 30 degrees below zero winter temperature.

The little community of Free Staters withdraws into Lawrence for the winter, waits and watches uneasily as the Missourians encroach on their claims, provoke confrontations and maraud in drunken bands. The build- up to inevitable violence serves to create a degree of tension, though perhaps not quite enough for the grim reality. But this is stylised fiction, and in that sense as far from historical truth as from other kinds of writing about the past - from the luminosity of Willa Cather, say.

The final, and best, section of a hefty read moves into territory closer to Gone With the Wind. The pace picks up. Lidie takes to the road, set on avenging the murder of her husband. Now we are nicely into the mood of picaresque adventure and prepared to swallow Lidie's improbable ability to disguise herself as a youth without ever being rumbled, along with a slice of barefaced coincidence. There is a fine creative energy behind the novel but it is only in this last section that it comes into its own, just as Lidie herself seems to step out with heightened vigour.

That said, if you like the idea of a 19th-century novel with a 20th- century spin, then here it is. And the extracts from "A Treatise on Domestic Economy" which head each chapter put a snug New England outlook in appropriate apposition to the frontier experience.