Jane Smiley's 'Lidie Newton': echo of Dickens

March 29, 1998|By Beth Kephart | Beth Kephart,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

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

Upon my shelf of favorite books sits Jane Smiley's "The Age of Grief." I can remember where I was and what I was mourning when I fell upon that book.

I can remember how it was for me afterward, how it took weeks for Smiley's characters to dim and recede and for me to stumble back toward life. There was little between Smiley and the reader in "The Age of Grief." There were the brilliant nuances of loss and love, and nothing more.

With her ninth book of fiction, "The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton," the Pulitzer-Prize winning author assuredly gives us more. We are Readers here, with a capital R, and our heroine is a horse-riding, river-swimming, plain-faced young woman with a distinctly well-calibrated mind of her own.

The year is 1855. The place is Quincy, Ill. The weather is smug and deplorable. An abolitionist from New England makes his way into town, and before we know it, our heroine is married and packed off for Kansas Territory, a crate full of Sharps rifles in tow.

Lidie may be rugged, but she's in for the adventure of her life - sullied riverboat rides and the harsh realities of homesteading, isolation and trickery, murder and plotted revenge, the vile complications of what becomes known as "the goose question." The West is wild and wholly unregulated. One is forced to take sides, and to absorb the consequences.

With Lidie's tale, Smiley gives us much to marvel at. There's the research, for one thing, which yields fascinating details about everything from glasses of water (the liquid being "thick on the bottom and thin at top") to the differentiating feel of respective countrysides.

There's the pace of the adventure; nothing dawdles. There's the politics of the "goose question" itself - a full-blown debate about slavery, as seen from every possible angle.

But what is not here, it seems to me, is the necessary torque of passion. Lidie's account is told in the first person, and it is full of the idiosyncracies of its time - a chirpy voice that hardly ever clouds over; a profusion of stuttering - I must say her chapter headings that sound as if they were pulled directly from "David Copperfield": "I Eavesdrop, and Hear Ill of Myself." "I Improve My Friendship with Mr. Newton." "I Am Hopeful, and Receive a Surprise."

It is clever. It is smart. It is, given the antebellum era of which Smiley writes, proper. But Lidie's voice, it seems, is too carefully buoyed up, too constrained, too percolated by the facts; we glide along its surface, seeking access. We want to know, beyond three kisses, how Lidie finds the mysteries and intimacies of married life. We want to experience the stab and pang of her loss. We want our heroine to reflect, more than she ultimately does, on her own miserable miscalculations. We want, in short, a greater emotional whole, but the conceit of Smiley's calculated devices won't allow it. History and politics are Smiley's subjects here. She is not about to give us a piece of her heart.

Beth Kephart's nonfiction book, "A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage," will be published by Norton in June. She has published some 30 short stories and essays in the last five years.

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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