Anna North, Outlawed, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2021 (USA)
First line: In the year of our Lord 1894, I became an outlaw.
Anna North’s Outlawed treats us to a beautifully realised alternative America of 1894, where seventeen-year-old Ada lives with her sisters and midwife mum, Evelyn, in the Dakota town of Fairchild.
The town’s name is a clue to the novel’s subject: around 60 years earlier, the Great Flu swept through the land, decimating the population and creating what is effectively a religious cult of the child. Grief, trauma and the need to reproduce has made fertility and child-bearing an obsessive social focus, and young wives are watched like hawks in their first year of marriage to see if they can successfully conceive. If they can’t, they risk being deemed ‘barren’, and possibly, if things go badly, being branded a witch — with deadly consequences.
When Ada finds herself in this tightest of spots, her mother is able to get her to safety. But one thing leads to another, and soon she’s on the run with the intriguing Hole in the Wall Gang, whose charismatic leader, the Kid, has a utopian dream that’s going to need the heist of all heists to finance it.
So what we have here is a feminist Western that’s a rollicking read (bombs made of horse dung!), but that also explores complex themes: the social fallout of a pandemic; how ignorance and fear leads to catastrophic scapegoating; the paths taken by individuals who are criminalised through no fault of their own; the alternative communities and alliances that such individuals forge; the resilience and collective action that may occasionally win the day.
The characters – from Ada and Evelyn to the Kid, Texas, Elzy, Lark and Amity the Dappled Grey Mare – are plucky, complicated and engaging, and the descriptions of the American Wild West – all searing red rock and herds of buffalo – are sumptuous.
But it’s Ada who is the standout star. Her intelligence and determination to follow her own path reminded me of other spirited female narrators undergoing rites of passage, such as Mattie in Charles Portis’ True Grit and Ree in Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. There are, of course, also shades of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Handmaid’s Tale (but things thankfully never get quite as grim as they do in Gilead). Outlawed is a splendidly enjoyable and thought-provoking read.
In other news: I’ve now set up a Pinterest HQ for Mrs. Peabody Investigates, where I’ll pin reviews as they go live. This will hopefully give you all another, more visual way of dipping into or returning to reviews over the year. We’ll see how it goes! Feedback very welcome 🙂