In brief: Ada’s life seemed great until she was unable to give her husband a child. Now she’s been thrown out of town and the only real option is to join the Hole in the Wall gang of bushrangers.
The good: It’s wonderfully inventive, yet eerily familiar.
The not-so-good: Just be aware this contains some alternate history or you might start wondering if your American history is woefully deficient…
Why I chose it: A lot of good buzz, plus I really enjoyed The Life and Death of Sophie Stark.
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson (Hachette)
Setting: America, 1994
Rating: 9 out of 10
Generally, I wouldn’t be the type to pick up a Western but two things swayed me when it came to Outlawed. The first was that I’d really enjoyed Anna North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark and the second was that I can’t help but be swayed by book buzz from Twitter, Reese Witherspoon et al. This book was out of my comfort zone, but it was a delight to read.
Outlawed is set in an alternate version of 1890s America. I think that’s important to tell readers because it refers to a Great Flu in the past. (I started to wonder how I’d missed that in all the reading I’ve been doing about pandemics over the last year). The Great Flu has left a very different version of America, one that is fractured into independent towns with no federal government in sight. The main aim for women is to bear children to repopulate the decimation caused by the Great Flu. If women can’t bear children, they are often suspected to be witches and removed from the community permanently. Gaol is common as are hanging and putting barren women in the stocks. Ada is looking forward to her marriage and being a midwife in her local community, but when she doesn’t fall pregnant she is expelled from her mother-in-law’s house. The sheriff is somewhat sympathetic, and instead of arresting Ada arranges for her to leave town. But Ada isn’t happy and eventually finds her way to the Hole in the Wall gang, a group of women who are outcasts. They are known for robberies, but now the leader has grander plans to take over a town. Ada just really wants to be a midwife and find out how to help barren women – but is the plan too tempting?
Outlawed combines a lot of ideas in a setting that is very different to what the reader would expect. It explores sexuality, gender, feminism, race, non-conformity to popular ideals and fertility. Against the Western setting with a touch of dystopia, these issues became stark, magnified. The rest of the population is fixated on procreation (and of course, sex) reducing the role of women to vessels for children. Science is backward, almost non-existent with some throwbacks to the Middle Ages. While the Hole in the Wall gang seem quite ‘normal’ to the modern reader in their forthrightness, diversity and sharing of opinions, to the other characters they are foreign and suspicious. Every character in the gang has a different story of how they came to be where they are. I wish some of the minor characters’ backstories had been explored a little more and that the reader had more of an introduction to how this version of America came to be (if only to make parallels with recent history). However, this may have detracted from the action which doesn’t stop throughout the novel. There is always something happening on and off the page – the gang doesn’t stop plotting, planning and executing their ideas. It’s a very original premise for a novel and I can’t wait to see what Anna North comes up with next.