Author: Anna North
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Publication date: January 5, 2021
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Western/speculative fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
The Crucible meets True Grit in this riveting adventure story of a fugitive girl, a mysterious gang of robbers, and their dangerous mission to transform the Wild West.
In the year of our Lord 1894, I became an outlaw.
The day of her wedding, 17 year old Ada’s life looks good; she loves her husband, and she loves working as an apprentice to her mother, a respected midwife. But after a year of marriage and no pregnancy, in a town where barren women are routinely hanged as witches, her survival depends on leaving behind everything she knows.
She joins up with the notorious Hole in the Wall Gang, a band of outlaws led by a preacher-turned-robber known to all as the Kid. Charismatic, grandiose, and mercurial, the Kid is determined to create a safe haven for outcast women. But to make this dream a reality, the Gang hatches a treacherous plan that may get them all killed. And Ada must decide whether she’s willing to risk her life for the possibility of a new kind of future for them all.
Featuring an irresistibly no-nonsense, courageous, and determined heroine, Outlawed dusts off the myth of the old West and reignites the glimmering promise of the frontier with an entirely new set of feminist stakes. Anna North has crafted a pulse-racing, page-turning saga about the search for hope in the wake of death, and for truth in a climate of small-mindedness and fear.
Hey, look! I guess feminist westerns are a thing now? After reading Upright Women Wanted earlier this year, I was excited to get my hands on yet another revisionist/feminist western adventure.
In Outlawed, we meet 17-year-old Ada at what should be the start of a happy future. Newly married, she loves her husband and is enjoying a robust married life with him. Except she’s not getting pregnant. As the months go by, the pressure mounts, until finally, after a year of marriage, she’s kicked out by her in-laws.
Being barren is considered the utmost failure for a woman, and failing to conceive is always considered the woman’s fault. Maybe it’s her family background? Maybe it’s punishment for sin? Or worst of all, she could be a witch, and most likely to blame for all the miscarriages and other tragedies in her town.
In the world of Outlawed, a terrible Flu years back wiped out 90% of the world’s population. In the pandemic’s aftermath, a new religion has blossomed, teaching the gospel of the Baby Jesus, who promises healthy futures to people — so long as they go forth and be fruitful, to repopulate the Earth. Barrenness, therefore, is not just a personal misfortune, but a sin against Baby Jesus. Barren women are outcasts, and once facing accusations of wrong-doing, are more likely than not to be hanged or imprisoned.
Ada, the daughter of the town’s only midwife, has been trained all her life by her mother to follow in her footsteps, and she understands that there must be scientific reasons for why some women get pregnant and some don’t. This conviction doesn’t save her when she’s accused of witchcraft, and she’s forced to flee for her life, eventually ending up with the Kid and the Hole in the Wall Gang, a group of outcast women who band together for survival. As Ada is given a place with the gang, she begins her days as an outlaw.
From this point, we follow Ada and the gang as they plot a daring heist that should enable them to provide a haven for other outcast women, but their plans are risky, the group faces divisions about their mission, and the Kid, their leader, suffers through bouts of depression that leave them unable to lead at a critical moment.
I mostly enjoyed Outlawed, but a few elements hold me back from giving this book a rave review. The pacing sags in the middle, once Ada arrives at the Hole in the Wall’s hideout, as she struggles for acceptance and to learn their ways. At this point, the plot slows down and becomes mainly focused on arguments and resentments within the group. Also, Ada’s transformation into a western outlaw seems a little too abrupt, and given her vocation as a healer, she appears to accept the more violent aspects of their lives without too many qualms.
My other complaint, which may just be a “me” thing rather than an issue with the book, is that the gang’s members are introduced all at once. We see them all as Ada first approaches, with physical descriptions of the people she sees around a campfire. Later, we learn their names as Ada does too. And for the life of me, I could not match the names and the people — while a few were distinct, for the most part, I could not really distinguish the characters as individuals or figure out who was who. It was annoying, and I gave up trying after a while.
Still, there’s a lot to love about Outlawed. The Western setting is familiar, but it’s turned upside down in this new version of the Old West, with fertility being the highest measure of a woman’s worth and a belief in witchcraft that seems like it should already be a thing of the distant past. I liked the sense of inclusion among the outcasts — any woman in trouble is welcome, and as we see later, there are plenty of reasons for people to end up ostracized, cast away, and forced to seek sanctuary among the outlaws.
I also loved Ada’s devotion to healing and to learning. The desire to learn what causes barrenness is what drives her, not only for her own sake but for the purpose of helping other women who suffer.
Once I’d picked up Outlawed and read the author bio, I realized that I have an earlier book by this author (America Pacifica) on my shelves. While I wouldn’t say that Outlawed was a complete hit for me, it intrigued me enough that I’ll definitely want to read more by this author.
And PS – is that cover amazing or what?