Reviewed by Luanne Clark
What if the nineteenth century had played out differently than it did? What if there had been no massive westward migration? What if there had been no Industrial Revolution? What if there had been no Civil War? In her new book, Outlawed, author Anna North imagines just such an alternate history for the American West.
Instead of the events as actually happened, imagine instead that Earth suffered an influenza epidemic (that’s a timely topic, right?) in 1830. Remembered as The Great Flu it decimated the world’s population. Before the epidemic had run its course, ninety percent of all men, women, and children were gone. Instead of a westward migration communities were left picking up the pieces of shattered lives. As plantation owners and their families died, slaves moved into the abandoned mansions or left and made their way elsewhere to farm on their own. So much effort is spent on rebuilding what was lost that America never emerged from the agrarian society of the preceding centuries.
In a world so bereft, great emphasis is placed on rebuilding the population. Children are treasured and motherhood is a woman’s greatest contribution.The dark side of this culture is that infertility is shameful, and a barren woman is shunned and may be prosecuted for witchcraft. It is 1894 in this American West that we meet Ada, a 17 year old girl training to be a prestigious midwife. As our story begins she has just gotten married. She’s a glowing bride just beginning her happy life with her young husband. Looking forward to a lifetime full of children and family she is distressed when she hasn’t conceived in the first months of her marriage. Laws are such that if she hasn’t conceived in the first year, she is considered barren. Her husband is obligated to set her aside and marry a woman with more “potential”. As she nears her first anniversary, other events set the community against her as a witch. As the sheriff says, not unkindly, “When a child dies, or two people in love can’t conceive, or a man loses his wife in childbirth--these things aren’t bearable, Ada, not without help. But if you know why it happened, if you have someone or somebody to blame, then sometimes that’s enough to keep going...We all have to make sacrifices, Ada. I’m sorry, but this is yours.”