This Week's Review at Inklings
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.”
Ada’s choices are the hangman’s noose, or escape to sanctuary in a convent. She tries to make convent life work, but she’s just not a fit. Mother Superior offers a desperate and tantalizing choice. Does Ada want to stay at the convent where she is safe yet miserable, or take a chance on the open road? Mother helps her get to the Badlands where she meets up with the notorious Hole-in-the Wall Gang. The gang consists of other barren and outcast women and Ada’s training as a midwife secures her position as their doctor. The gang’s leader, The Kid, has an ambitious plan: to build a frontier haven where barren women feel safe and valued. Ada becomes part of this undertaking, risking everything for the dream of a place of worth and security.
Anna North has created a unique world that has enough historical and geographical references to the world we know to make it a fascinating place for Ada and her companions. It’s a world of the true American West: brave, tough, and independent. It’s a world where The Handmaids Tale meets Lonesome Dove meets Farenheit 451. It’s a world I’m glad I got to know.