Huck revisited

The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton by Jane Smiley Flamingo pounds 17.99

"I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilise me and I can't stand it. I been there before." So, famously, Mark Twain ends The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the ambiguity of these words have exerted a fascination over readers ever since. This ambiguity was surely Jane Smiley's starting- point for The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, she having already expressed in a critical essay important reservations on her part about Twain's masterpiece. In her latest and very long novel, which in its blend of the picaresque and the dramatic adventure-story has many parallels with Huckleberry Finn, she does indeed light out for the Territory, to show it up as a terrible place, as rampant with cruelty and greed as any of the riverside communities visited by Huck and Jim, and a microcosm for an America about to break out into a Civil War with casualties of unprecedented proportions. Her demonstration casts creative doubt on the morality or sense of anyone finding so lawless and unstructured a society a desideratum, and is therefore a fictive plea to accord the notion of "sivilisation" at least a few merits.

The Territory here is Kansas Territory, usually referred to as KT, an extension of the state of Missouri, though there is a strong Free Stater party wanting full autonomy within the larger complex of the United States. Missouri is a slave-holding state, and the Missourians of the Territory, and the rag, tag and bobtail who have affiliated themselves with them and constitute the notorious Bloody Ruffians, are enthusiasts for this status quo to be maintained. In contrast the Free Staters, who are for the most part without Southern affiliations (the heroine's husband is a New Englander) are abolitionists by conviction, and wish to create a just new society to which the very notion of slavery will be abhorrent. Two kinds of American are therefore to be found in the Territory, frank seekers after fortune, impatient of all restraints, and Utopians whose blend of Christianity and Enlightenment deism makes them reluctant to admit the existence of evil in any of their fellow-humans. The Civil War will absorb the inevitable conflict between the two.

To the KT town of Lawrence come the narrator, Lidie, a plain if not downright ugly young woman of 20, and her idealistic older husband, Thomas Newton. They are soon joined by Lidie's young nephew Frank, who combines qualities of both Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer and with whom she joyfully swam the Mississippi river, and a beautiful horse, Jeremiah, described with the tenderness and intimacy of detail one would expect from the author of Barn Blind (1980). The couple's views, indeed their very characters, make them highly unpopular with the Missourian faction, who, having outlaws only too ready to help them, can express their hostility in the most direct and uncompromising way. Thomas and Jeremiah are shot before Lidie's eyes. In the second half of the novel Lidie embarks on avenging her losses, while KT and the United States beyond move towards total war. In order to accomplish her self- set tasks Lidie ventures out en travestie, in her late husband's clothes. Her disguise is, of course, a very complete revenge on a viciously and stupidly male-dominated society.

So interesting and ambitious is Jane Smiley's enterprise that it seems almost churlish to speak of faults, yet I can't judge Lidie Newton a success, one commensurate with the author's earlier Pulitzer Prize winning A Thousand Acres (1992). The subject is undermined by its presentation; Jane Smiley, assuming Lidie Newton's voice, clearly wishes her to relate the novel as a woman of her times might have done. But a contemporary narrator would involuntarily express tensions, confusions, barely acknowledged joys in the sheer release of the narration. Lidie Newton, however, is a conscious creation, her every utterance under authorial control, and therefore what she tells us never surprises us, however surprising the events themselves. The effect is of pastiche rather than recreation. Time and again, for instance, we are introduced to KT inhabitants who speak the cracker-barrel wisdom we have met in Artemus Ward and Mark Twain himself. But all the time we readers know we have met them there; they appear as examples of a bygone period not as independent beings who simultaneously manifest an ongoing culture. This kind of danger is one into which all too many historical novelists run. Perhaps the truly significant works in the genre are always informed by some familial or personal elements which galvanise them into life - Lampedusa's The Leopard or Allen Tate's nowadays undervalued treatment of the American Civil War, The Fathers.

All the same, one applauds Jane Smiley for her homage to abolitionism, a very desirable corrective to the romanticism all too freely let loose by writers on the Confederates in the War. The qualities of courage and right-heartedness to be found in Lidie Newton will undoubtedly serve her creator well in subsequent fiction.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders