Cinematic. I saw what she saw. I smelled, tasted, touched, heard what she wrote. And even though it’s a kind of alternative history, or a parallel universe, or just good old-fashioned re-imagining worlds, the story is quite plausible, with few exceptions.
Anna North’s fine new novel, Outlawed, her debut, tells the story of Ada, a young refugee from a town with a witch problem. As in, it believes in witches, which, at the moment, doesn’t sound all that unfamiliar. Her town also has a kind of Handmaid’s Tale problem, which may, in this other-world, stretch far and wide in the America of the 1890s, at least in the parts that had previously suffered through the Flu. So, yeah, there’s been a devastating pandemic that screwed things up and made all too many people go half-crazy, and, yes, this was written (apparently) before Covid hit. She came up with the story before our world was sent into a kind of moral, ethical and logistical abyss, but her novel has the added power of making us rethink the present too.
(Like all good literature . . . )
Ada, the narrator, is the daughter of a midwife, and midwives are crucial in that time and place, though they’re also subject to deadly retribution, especially if a baby dies, and then the witch factor sets in. Ada is also newly married, can’t seem to give birth, which is perhaps their essential “duty” in that world. Complications arise and she’s forced to flee. Convents and places out of our Western Mythology soon kick in, like Hole in the Wall, and a person named “The Kid.” It would ruin the story to go into much more detail about that, but, suffice it to say, North plays with gender and sexuality, turns Old Western tropes upside down and sideways, and the result is compelling.
I wanted more.
I’m also thinking this would make a great movie or extended series, perhaps as a part of an anthology. I’d likely start with C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold, which also deals with Old West tropes and does marvelously original things to them.
This isn’t your grandfather’s West, or John Wayne’s. But it’s a big world. Lotsa room for the new and the old.