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.