After rereading Paulette Jiles’ outstanding News of the World for the library’s morning book club, I was reminded of how much I enjoy books set in the Old West, especially if they have unusual twists. When I heard about a new novel described as a feminist western, I knew I had to read it. I was not disappointed.
Anna North’s tale has the western tropes of bank robberies, cowboys and rowdy saloons, but she sets these familiar themes in an alternate history of the United States. It’s the late 1800s and a great flu pandemic has wiped out a lot of the country. Young women are expected first and foremost to get married and have children. Females who cannot conceive are accused of being witches.
The narrator of Outlawed is a plucky, intelligent teenager named Ada, who learns her mother’s midwifery skills in hopes of following in her footsteps. Ada, like all girls her age, gets married and waits for the babies to come. But they don’t. She is accused of being a witch and faces a life of prison or even hanging. Before Ada can be arrested, her wise mother secretly arranges for her daughter to flee to a convent for safe haven.
The Mother Superior soon realizes the determined Ada is not made for a life of piety, and sends her off to find The Kid and the Hole in the Wall Gang. Ada meets a group of outlaws who all are women but dress mostly as men. This ragtag group of female miscreants teaches Ada how to fight, shoot a gun and lead a life of crime. Ada, in turn, helps them with her medical skills, which come in handy when a bullet needs to be removed. She even figures out how to make a bomb using horse poop.
The grief these women endure lives just below the surface of their tough, angry exteriors. Their inability to bear children cost them their friends and family, but they find solace in the Hole in the Wall Gang. Their optimistic leader, the Kid, is a fascinating character who suffers from severe bouts of depression. A daughter of a preacher, she was meant to follow in her father’s footsteps until she got married and was unable to bear children. She was the first to go to the convent for protection.
Outlawed is getting a lot of accolades. It is Reese Witherspoon’s book club pick and is going to be made into a television series by actress and producer Amy Adams, who would make a great Kid. Outlawed is a thought-provoking, unique take on an adventure story with determined, multi-faceted heroines. It is a gem of a book, and left me wanting to know more about what happens to Ada.