‘Outlaw’ Lets Characters Ride Free in the Old West

I opened Anna North’s Outlawed expecting a leisurely and thoughtful exploration of misfits forced into a life of crime in the days of cowboys and covered wagons.

Outlawed has misfits forced into a life of crime. It has cowboys and wagons a-plenty. But while it does explore misfits of various stripes, it does so in, at times, a breakneck pace. And once I opened the book, I hardly close it until I reached The End.

Ada, a 17-year-old apprentice to her midwife mother, is thrilled to be one of the first of her group to get married. She loves her husband and she’s excited to have her own children with him in addition to continuing to learn from her mother. But a year passes, and then another six months, and despite everything Ada tries to get pregnant (including an older “stud” named Sam, just in case her husband’s fertility is questionable) it becomes increasingly apparent that she’s not able to get pregnant. She is, in the vernacular of Outlawed, barren.

Which isn’t such an issue at first. She’s kicked to the curb by her husband and his parents, but she can still move back in with her mother and sisters, and that gives her an even better opportunity to learn the finer points of midwifery. The trouble comes with an epidemic of German measles that sweeps through the town and sickens or kills babies. In the town of Fairchild, that sort of calamity was well known as the work of a witch, and because witches are, naturally, barren, all fingers quickly point to Ada.

To avoid the gallows, Ada’s mother arranges for her to be swept off to a convent. Convent life suits Ada well enough, but before she takes her vows, she discovers a volume on midwifery that propels her to leave the convent in search of the master midwife who wrote the book. Although the nuns can’t help Ada find the midwife, the mother superior tells Ada, they do know of a group of misfits who might know where to point her. That band of misfits is none other than the Hole in the Wall Gang, a group of outlaws terrorizing their particular pocket of the West.

The only thing missing from this Western-with-nuns setting is more Shirley MacLaine.

The gang’s charismatic leader, know simply as the Kid, welcomes Ada with open arms, though the other members of the gang aren’t quite so eager. But Ada finds kinship with them all the same—most are barren women themselves, and the medical knowledge she gained as an apprentice midwife is valuable in the wilderness. As she proves her salt, the Kid launches their boldest plan yet, and Ada has to choose which risks are worth taking. Add in an oh-so-beautiful cowboy named Lark and the tireless shadow that is the Fairchild sheriff determined to get his witch, and Ada’s got her hands full.

The camaraderie between the misfits of various types—barren women, yes, but also those who defy gender and heterosexual norms—is heartening and feels like it rings true. There are no token examples of diversity, only people whose “odd” paths are only one aspect of their multifaceted characters. Another pleasant surprise was Ada’s freedom (both when she wa still in Fairchild and after she embarked into uncharted territory) to seek and experience sexual satisfaction, especially since it also wasn’t ever used for shock value. I wasn’t disappointed to get a rollicking adventure instead of a meditative frontier exploration, but North fits plenty of emotion and reflection in here, too.

North’s frontier world is realistic enough to feel the bone-chilling cold of winter and taste the dust kicking up from the trail in the summer. This environmental transportation is one of the things I love most about stories set in the West, especially since trading in my small town for urban living. North, also a journalist, knows how to research. And the fear that came with this Wild West dystopia where barren women are hung women as witches was so visceral and—more importantly—realistically drawn that it led me down a Google rabbit hole that eventually led to me reading someone’s 89-page thesis from Arkansas Tech, so that was informative. In that way, North’s fiction so effortlessly slides into fact and expectations, creating a seamless narrative that was, clearly, very easy to believe.

If you put your ear real close to the pages, you can even hear the rustled cattle mooing.

The relationships between the Hole in the Wall Gang and Ada were slightly harder to swallow at first. Although the gang was understandably leery of Ada and she definitely did make a mistake in an early robbery for which she was poorly prepared by the rest of the gang, but it seemed that she started at a significant deficit that didn’t seem to track with the kind of agreement it seemed the convent had with the Kid. Ada’s actual relationships with each member of the gang was well-drawn, but the broad distrust and dislike didn’t quite seem merited with the facts we were given.

That’s a small criticism, though it was a disappointing one given how badly I wanted her to finally find her place after so much disappointment. But she does get there eventually, and she helps to make it a place for those who come in the future to settle into a softer place than she had. And bittersweet as it was, the ending feels utterly true to the character, too.  

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