I would not have called myself a fan of westerns, either books or movies, and yet, I was charmed and delighted by the new book, Outlawed, by Anna North, which is, at least in outward form, a western. What made it so much fun to read was the way the author tilted and twisted the conventions of westerns, mixing them with some alternate history and some feminism, giving us some of the accouterments of the classic western (gangs of outlaws on the run from the sheriffs, people riding horses and stagecoaches, small farming and ranching communities, etc.) and some quirky additions. What we end up with is a book that’s both oddly familiar in its trappings and at the same time unpredictable and surprising.
The alternate history is alluded to without turning into an info dump. This book is set in 1894, in what would have been the western United States, if there were such a thing as the United States anymore. In this world, though, there was a terrible flu epidemic in the 1830’s which wiped out vast swaths of the population, including much of the government. The characters in this book live in the post-flu world, where the political structures we expect in westerns exist only in skeletal form, and the social changes that resulted from that pandemic are well-established.
For instance, having children is very important for women. People marry young and women are expected to get pregnant in the first year of their marriage, and keep having children thereafter. Any woman who has difficulty conceiving or carrying a child to term is in trouble. If it’s her “fault”, she’s considered barren and pretty much worthless. If it’s not really her “fault,” there has to be someone else to blame, and witchcraft is assumed to be the cause of miscarriages and failures to conceive. This feels plausible: as one midwife explains, people really don’t understand much about human reproduction and why things go wrong, and if they can’t get a scientific explanation, then at least they need to blame someone, and there’s plenty of historical precedent for societies to turn on women as witches when things go wrong.
Ada, our protagonist and narrator, is the daughter of a midwife, and has some skills in that area as well, though she’s frustrated by the lack of information her society has about how to help women during pregnancy and childbirth. She does what’s expected of her: she gets married to a local boy when she’s 17, she tries to start a family, and she doesn’t get pregnant. Things start to go wrong then: there’s an outbreak of German measles that leads to other young women losing their babies, and, naturally, no antibiotics or vaccinations. Such a tragedy needs a scapegoat and Ada fits the bill.
She runs away, first to a convent (but don’t expect it to be like the Catholic convents you know; though there is a form of Christianity in this America, what we see of it suggests it’s very different from the one prevalent in our America), and then, when that doesn’t work out, she sets out to find the legendary group of outlaws, the Hole in the Wall Gang, known for their outrageous robberies and their defiance of the law. Ada figures she can find sanctuary with them, and she does, though it’s not as simple as you might think.
All the members of the gang are women. They’ve all lived hard lives and escaped from the dangers of living as a barren woman, or a fallen woman, to join up with The Kid, a charismatic and enigmatic figure, formerly a preacher and still given to quoting from the Bible to support the Kid’s plans and ideas. Ada does not fit in right away (and here I give props to North; it would have been easy, even cliche, for her to discover her true self among this group of outlaw women immediately, but it’s much more realistic in the circumstances for her to have to find her way and deal with the suspicions and doubts of her more experienced peers). She doesn’t shoot well, she doesn’t know how to ride when she first joins them, and she seems pretty out of place. The thing that saves her, and ultimately makes her one of the group, is her medical ability (such as it is; remember we don’t have a lot of technology or modern medicine here).
The Kid comes up with a complicated plan involving robbing a bank in town and using the bank’s resources to take over the town and make it into a haven for women who don’t fit in elsewhere. It’s a lovely vision, but half the women in the group are against it: too dangerous, relying too much on chance, too big. Ada finds herself on the Kid’s side, wanting to help create this utopian town, and she joins in the preparations for the heist.
Naturally, things are more complicated than the Kid anticipated. Naturally things don’t work according to plan, and this is where the book turns into a quick paced adventure story, as the women try to bend events to suit their original plan and cope with the inevitable moments when things go wrong. I won’t give any spoilers (though I did say I enjoyed the book, so you might guess that it’s not a total downer) because I don’t want to spoil the fun.
Part of what makes this book such a great quick read is the characters. Ada, the Kid, Lo, News, Elzy, Cassie, Lark: they’re all vivid people with different pasts shaping their personalities and their ways of reacting to their world. They’re all flawed, fallible people who make mistakes and then try to fix them, but they’re also all people you care about and want to see succeed, whatever “success” turns out to be.
Realistic enough to be believable, different enough to be unpredictable, lively and quick-paced, Outlawed is a great western for people who don’t think they like westerns.