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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Hodgson

Outlawed by Anna North

Updated: Jul 9, 2021


When I came across this book on the publisher’s Instagram account, I knew I needed to find out more about Outlawed. What sealed the deal for me was the review which said ‘Fans of Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy finally get the Western they deserve’. These are two of my favourite writers of all time, and I’ve written papers and delivered conference talks about the Western novels of Cormac McCarthy in the past. To have another writer of the genre mentioned in the same breath as him caught my attention, so I jumped online to order a copy with a quick draw even Billy the Kid himself would have been proud of.


The story itself is set in the year 1894 and we follow 17 year old Ada as she transitions from young bride and trainee midwife to a wanted outlaw and member of the notorious Hole-in-the-Wall gang. This revisionist western is set in a world where a flu epidemic in the 1830s decimated the American population and even saw the breakdown of the central government of the United States. The industrial revolution has sputtered to a halt, medicinal study gives way to superstition and fertility in women is prized above all else, even more than chastity. If you are a ‘barren’ woman then you are seen as a witch, and these women are chased out of town (or worse: executed) for not being able to carry a baby to term.


This is a complex novel and explores a lot of modern day issues through this lens of the heyday of the American West. Infertility, race, gender identity and sexual orientation are all central to the narrative. Our cast of characters each have different reasons which have led them to the Hole-in-the-Wall gang. This group of marginalised individuals create their own community on the periphery of all else and the scenes where Ada learns each of their stories are uplifting.


The parallels with Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are quite clear: the roles women are expected to play in society are those centred around their identity as wife and mother. Those who do not, or cannot, conform are sent away. Here, they become outlaws, hidden from view as a plague on civilised society, and in Atwood’s novel they are sent to the Colonies to labour.


I do have some mixed feelings about the novel, purely because I expected something different after the bold claim above that drew me to it. The soaring descriptions of the natural world and the unflinching presentation of human nature in all its brutality that I find so mesmerising about McCarthy’s work are not here to the same degree. I’m not saying that I did not appreciate North’s narrative style because that’s not true. The natural world is an inherently important part of these characters’ existence: for Ada who relies on herbs to create her medicines and for the gang as a whole who rely on it for their sanctuary and for sustenance. It just didn’t have the same magic for me as some of McCarthy’s own descriptions.


I also have no doubt that the TV adaptation of Outlawed, which I hear is already in the works, will be a great success as this book certainly doesn’t lack for adventure and plot. It is relatively short at 260 pages but packs a lot of action into those pages. In this respect, it is actually much closer to the traditional penny westerns than you might first expect.


Outlawed is an extraordinary reimagining of the American West. It takes both the history and cultural myth of the West and subverts it in an almost playful way. If you are a fan of the genre, there are plenty of the classic tropes to keep you appetite fed. Even if you’ve never read a Western in your life, I do recommend you pick this one up for its thoughtful portrayal of what it means to find meaning and identity beyond the expectations society places on you.

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