This story of one woman's turbulent life in the newly-created Kansas Territory both entertains and educates. Wanting to escape a life of household chores in her sisters' homes, Lidie marries an abolitionist passing through her Illinois town on the way to Kansas. The Kansas Territory isn't what she expected, though, and she spends the bulk of the book dealing with challenges ranging from terrible weather to violent Border Ruffians.
Unlike some other reviewers, I found this book not just well-written but very engaging; the myriad challenges of KT and the characters' complex relationships were more than enough to hold my interest. I also learned from this book, and Lidie's voice felt right on: Smiley apparently read hundreds of nineteenth-century documents to get a feel for the way someone like Lidie would have expressed herself, and it shows. The realistic voice, and the attention paid to 1850s sensibilities (for instance, Lidie, who is no prude, is startled when a friend announces herself to be "pregnant"; "as if she were a dog," Lidie comments) lend a great deal of credibility to the story.
Also excellent was the complexity of the characters. Writing about slavery often results in black-and-white characterization, but here we have a heroine who is moved by individual stories without passionately opposing the institution itself; die-hard abolitionists who nevertheless want to keep freed slaves out of the territory; men who have never owned slaves but are still willing to kill or die to maintain slavery; and many more. While it's clear that the anti-slavery settlers have the moral high ground, Smiley doesn't gloss over the violence on either side, and she also pokes gentle fun at the settlers' propensity toward melodrama and outrage (they refer to a standoff as a "war," for instance). Seeing how life on the frontier affected the characters was also a highlight. And of course the heroine herself, with a strong, individual personality, keeps things interesting.
However, I was less pleased with the last third of the book, in which Lidie has "adventures" in Missouri. Her ability to pass herself off as a man, even to her male co-workers in the job she oh-so-conveniently obtains, stretches credibility rather too far. And while this section feels like it's leading up to something big, very little actually happens in it, especially for the amount of page time it takes up. I understand why the author wanted to take us to Missouri and introduce us to slaves and slaveholders--it does round out the book by adding additional and very relevant perspectives--but I can't help feeling like it's not done as well as it could have been. And the interactions between Lidie and the slave woman Lorna feel terribly stilted.
Overall, I enjoyed the book and found it to be very well-written. While the last section didn't seem to accomplish what it set out to do, I still recommend this book.