Books: Before the War: A Feminist Take

It's an eerie sensation to read Jane Smiley's prankish new novel, set in pre-Civil War Kansas, after campaigning with the fiery abolitionist John Brown through the same time and terrain in Russell Banks' thunderous epic Cloudsplitter. The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (Knopf; 448 pages; $26) follows Lidie, a sturdy young Illinois bride, to the dust-blown outpost of Lawrence, Kans., in the tumultuous year of 1855. Lawrence is a raw, ill-favored roost of newly arrived Free Soil settlers, jostled by drunken proslave irregulars from Missouri and protected, mostly with words, by gassy politicians. John Brown and his terrible sons,...

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