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Challenging Mark Twain's Tales of Simpler Times

Sans raft, Lidie Newton is more than a female Huck Finn


By Jane Smiley

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Random House

452 pp., $26

Ernest Hemingway once said, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn,' " and since then a river of ink has flowed to justify that monumental claim.

Two years ago, Jane Smiley went against this current of praise and took the nation's school teachers to task for excusing what she considers Twain's moral passivity in response to slavery.

In Harper's magazine the Pulitzer Prize-winning author wrote, "All the claims that are routinely made for the book's humanitarian power are, in the end, simply absurd. To invest 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' with greatness is to underwrite a very simplistic and evasive theory of what racism is."

It's now apparent that when she wrote those words, she was also working on an alternative to Twain's classic. "The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton" moves the political discussion of slavery onto center stage in a way that Huck and Jim never consider. And when a slave bolts with the young narrator, the escape isn't a leisurely raft trip and freedom isn't guaranteed.

Smiley has produced a novel as engaging as any ever written about the "peculiar institution" which eventually tore the United States apart. This picaresque tale presents a series of remarkable characters, particularly the inexperienced narrator, whose graphic descriptions of travel and domestic life before the Civil War strip away romantic notions of simpler times.

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When the novel opens, Lidie, a lazy, lanky girl who's more comfortable with a rifle than a needle, finds herself the subject of endless sighs and corrections from her responsible, hard-working sisters. By way of introduction she brags, "I had perversely cultivated uselessness over the years and had reached, as I then thought, a pitch of uselessness that was truly rare, or even unique, among the women of Quincy, Illinois."

As much to escape her sisters' tedium as anything else, Lidie marries a deeply principled Unitarian, whose quiet demeanor first excites and then scares her. Indeed, she has reason to feel alarm. The ever sanguine Thomas Newton is actually a gun-running activist in the radical abolition movement. From her boring home in Quincy, Lidie finds herself propelled into the volcanic Kansas Territory on the eve of the Civil War.

In the polarized atmosphere of 1856, Lidie cannot remain so happily uninterested in "the goose question," a euphemism for one's position on the slavery issue. Instructed by her earnest husband, shrill propaganda, and the savage treatment that Lawrence, Kan., endures from pro-slavery Missourians, Lidie soaks up the fervor of her abolitionist community. Her only stable guide throughout this harrowing adventure is a ridiculously irrelevant handbook on women's etiquette.

When a band of thugs murders Thomas, Lidie's fire grows more intense, but it also grows more personal and removes her from the political battle that so inspired her husband. Driven by grief and revenge, she says goodbye to her friends, dresses as a man, and heads out into the lawless territory to track down the killers.

Even that clear motive, however, loses its focus as Lidie finds her principles and the hatred she feels muddled by the benevolence she receives from a family of slave holders. Easily swayed by the opinions of others - her impatient sisters, her abolitionist husband, a run-away slave - Lidie finds herself hopelessly ambivalent.

"The very certainty of everyone around me drove all certainty out of me," she admits. In the end, like Huck, Lidie is so bewildered by horrors and hypocrites that she can do nothing but stop writing and shake her head. "Revenge was more complicated than I had thought it would be," Lidie admits, "but then so was everything else one looks forward to with confidence."

Indeed, there's much thought-provoking complication here. Smiley has created an authentic voice in this struggle of a young women to live simply amid a swirl of deadly antagonism.

* Ron Charles teaches English at the John Burroughs School in St. Louis.

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