All Dressed Up (in Drag), Smiley’s Novel Goes Nowhere

The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton , by Jane Smiley. Knopf, 452 pages, $26.

The Civil War rages everywhere. There’s Cold Mountain and Cloudsplitter , Russell Banks’ huge novel about John Brown, and Jacob’s Ladder , by Donald McCaig, an earnest tome subtitled “A Story of Virginia During the War”–no need to ask which war. Add Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War and a brace of new Lincoln books, and we’re well prepped for any plunge into the moral swamp of slavery and secession. It’s no surprise to find a novel packed with expository passages about Missouri’s “border ruffians,” the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company and the “Wakarusa War.” Remedial history lessons seem inevitable.

And necessary. In his prison cell the day after his doomed raid on Harpers Ferry, a month and a half before he was hanged, John Brown made this prophecy to a reporter for the New York Herald : “You may dispose of me very easily–I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled–this Negro question, I mean; the end of that is not yet.” Not even war, the “unfinished” Civil War, settled the question.

We poke through the ashes, looking for clues. A good place to look is Kansas in the mid-1850′s, torn between free-soil and pro-slavery factions; “Bleeding Kansas,” it was called. The Civil War waiting to happen. Prime material for a new Jane Smiley novel, a cross between A Thousand Acres , her Pulitzer Prize-winning Iowa melodrama, and The Greenlanders , her 14th-century Norse saga. Frontier life in the Kansas Territory, with sectional violence brewing–it’s the rush of history troubling precarious domesticity. Picture a primitive log cabin buffeted by gales. Politics and propaganda swirled with greed and folly in those long-ago prairie winds: turbulent times you would expect the author of Moo , a rollicking campus satire, to pin and label with passionate precision.

All signs point to the success of The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton –but it flops.

Ms. Smiley is one of our most versatile novelists. She writes with cool confidence. Not swagger, but restrained pride in the effectiveness of accurate prose. As the old-timey title suggests, she has patterned Lidie Newton on 19th-century adventure narratives; there’s a whole subgenre of pamphlets featuring intrepid females, forgotten volumes such as The Life and Suffering of Miss Emma Cole (1844) and The Remarkable Narrative of Cordelia Krats: Or, The Female Wanderer (1846). Ms. Smiley’s novel is an uncomfortable hybrid, archaic constraints jumbled with postmodern insights, like a see-through corset.

Lydia Newton hails from Quincy, Ill. A tomboy grown into a tall young woman, she declares herself a stranger to the domestic arts, “useless,” even. “Worse,” she admits, “I was plain.” But she has talents suited to the frontier: “I could ride a horse astride, saddle or no saddle. I could walk for miles without tiring. I could swim.… I could bait a hook and catch a fish.” She dreams of the West: Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas.

Along comes Thomas Newton, Harvard graduate and thoughtful, hesitant abolitionist, “not a fighting man,” who is nonetheless headed to Kansas with a crate of Sharps rifles, courtesy of Eli Thayer’s Emigrant Aid Company. After a brief courtship, Thomas marries Lidie in late August 1855; they set off at once by riverboat, down the Mississippi and up the Missouri, to Kansas City. They travel by wagon to Lawrence, a free-soil enclave perilously close to the Missouri border, putting it within spitting distance of a pro-slave population that is proudly, violently, very often drunkenly hostile to any hint of abolitionist sentiment. On a claim north of town, Thomas erects a cabin, “twelve by twelve, built of green logs, chinked with twigs and mud.”

Up to that point, the novel is an agreeable roadshow. It’s a pleasure to get to know Lidie and Thomas as they get to know each other and their menaced corner of the Kansas Territory (“K.T.” in the vernacular). Full-scale hostilities are just a holler away. “When Thomas and I arrived,” says Lidie, “events had very much begun.” Ms. Smiley dutifully registers in proper historical sequence the snowballing of alarming incidents, the first drops of Kansas blood that lead to the sacking of Lawrence and John Brown’s Pottawatomie massacre. But the action, most of it reported secondhand, as rumor or partisan posturing, seems muffled and dim. The story sags. Ms. Smiley tries to prop it up by importing Lidie’s cigar-smoking 12-year-old cousin Frank, a Huck Finn figure allergic to “civilizing influences.” Even Lidie sounds bored: “Well, a lot of things happened, I can’t list them all, and at any rate, all of them were swallowed up by what happened next.”

Which is that Thomas is shot down in the road before Lidie’s eyes by a trio of Southern ruffians. Says the man who pulls the trigger: “We’d like to shoot us a G– d–- Abolitionist!” The pace picks up with a lurch. Lidie heads to Missouri, disguises herself as a boy, plots revenge. But then the story sags once more–you know Ms. Smiley is in trouble when Lidie goes into gloss mode: “I summarize these events because at the time they were extraordinarily hard to understand.”

Part of the problem is Ms. Smiley’s political ambivalence. To be pro-slavery in K.T. is to be “sound on the goose question”; Ms. Smiley is, of course, safely unsound. But she is infected with the wishy-washy, irony-prone spirit of our age. She wants to give a hearing to the many sides of the argument, which makes for much gassy talk. She’s unwilling to present the struggle in absolutist terms. She won’t swallow the righteous logic of radical abolitionists, confident that “events in Kansas would issue in a much-needed cleansing of the national soul with regard to that single blot on our pristine character, Negro servitude.” The national soul, as glimpsed through this narrative, is splattered with blots, a Jackson Pollock effect that threatens to obscure the enormity of the slavery blot.

Lidie waffles, too. She notes that “Northerners, even abolitionists, knew more about how and why to chop down the slavery tree than they ever knew about what to do with its sour fruit.” She learns that in K.T., “it was often the case that every version of every story was equally true and equally false, owing to the complexity of every set of circumstances.” In Missouri, where circumstances change radically (she’s a man now, after all), she experiences the “vertigo” of double vision, seeing things from both sides of the gender divide, meanwhile passing as a Southerner, mouthing Southern sentiments.

Ms. Smiley also seems ambivalent about what kind of story she’s telling. When Frank is running wild in Lawrence, Lidie says, “K.T. was a boy’s adventure, that was for sure.” Later on, a man who knows only the tip of Lidie’s iceberg, declares, “This is a tragedy.” The tone of the novel is mostly lighthearted, the subject matter grave, the action inconclusive–even if you argue that the action encompasses, by extension, the Civil War and emancipation. When her travels and adventures are at last over, Lidie candidly admits to confusion; she adds, in limp conclusion, that after K.T., “nothing ever surprised [her] ever again.” At one point in the final pages, sounding suddenly like Holden Caulfield, she brushes history aside: “Everyone knows the end of the story, about the war and all of that.”

Maybe the muddle and the halting story line wouldn’t matter if Lidie’s voice had more pep and drive and grit. Because she is a woman of her time–episodes in drag notwithstanding–her account of Bleeding Kansas must remain decorous. Profanity is primly indicated with ellipses. Her own body is effectively banished from the book. No sex, no sweat, no malodorous trips to the outhouse. Ms. Smiley cuts herself off from the intimacy of words that stick to the skin, the kind of brute language that could convey what it feels like for a woman to become, briefly, a man. Lidie may learn postmodern lessons about the contingency of truth, but she’s not ready for the culture of shameless confession. She keeps us at arm’s length, and loses us.