Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Lidie Harkness Newton, an appreciation (possibly off topic)

Last week I grabbed a 50-cent used paperback from our local library's perpetual-book-sale rack, just because I had enjoyed something else the author (Jane Smiley) had written. It never occurred to me that this fiction would anything more than a pleasant escape. But sometimes fiction can get us closer to the human side of history than non-fiction can.

Set in the 1850s in Illinois and Kansas and Missouri, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton begins as a coming-of-age story and a bit of a love story -- and then everything changes. Both the heroine-narrator and the reader find themselves suddenly in deep water. Not until I finished it did I realize the Lidie was a bit like Voltaire's Candide in that picaresque tale. But unlike Candide she's a very real person as well as a vehicle for the author.

Smiley's lesson is a good deal more subtle than Voltaire's. In my mind, few issues in all of history, and none in American history, are more clear-cut than the fathomless moral evil that was human slavery and its ongoing aftermath. Smiley sets her story in the middle of a boiling conflict over slavery, and uses Lidie's adventures to show the human faces of an "issue" and compel the reader to pay a different kind of attention. No, she didn't change my mind, and I don't think she meant to. It's more about what you do with your assurance, maybe, or . . .

Actually, maybe we can't even have this conversation until you've read the book too.

Jane Smiley, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (New York: Knopf, 1998).

Harold Henderson, "Lidie Harkness Newton, an appreciation," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 22 May 2012 (http://midwesternmicrohistory.blogspot.com : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Judy G. Russell said...

Okay, you've hooked me. Where do I get my hands on this? (Bring it to Samford!)

Harold said...

LOL, Judy (time to read extra stuff? at Samford?) I'm happy to bring it as I'll be driving, but numerous copies are available for under $5 (including shipping) through Abebooks.