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
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
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.

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific