|Outlawed / Anna North|
NY: Bloomsbury, c2021.
Now this was a different book than I'd expected -- it's not just a modern, feminist Western, it's also a kind of retroactive post-apocalyptic novel. How can one explain this? Once you get your head around it, it's simple. But like I said, unexpected... somehow I'd missed that part.
Ada is married at 17, happily and expecting a great future. But after a year of marriage and no children in sight, her husband (and especially her mother-in-law) decides that she's barren and so they cast her out. In Ada's world, a world of 1894 in the west of what used to be the United States of America, before the Great Flu that killed most of the population, children are the reason for existence. Barren women are considered curses and driven from their towns so that they won't cause other women's pregnancies to fail, or deformed children to be born. If they're not chased away, they are hung as witches or abnormalities.
Ada's mother is the local midwife, but even all her help in delivering others' babies can't help Ada now. She flees to a convent that takes in women like her. Discovering that she's not really cut out for the nun life, the Mother Superior recommends Ada head out to find the notorious Hole in the Wall Gang, a refuge for women like her, led by The Kid
And so Ada does, and as she opens her story, "In the year of our Lord 1894, I became an outlaw.".
The story is rooted in the idea of women and fertility, and the control of fertility. When this is added to the Western tropes, this story feels like it could only be American. There is an atmosphere of fear and small mindedness, suspicion and superstition, and these women who don't fit in are having to carve their own living space out in whatever way they can. The way forward is community and education, timely thoughts for today as well.
I liked this book; the world created was convincing, and the characters were all unique -- there were really strong individuals found here. I thought the combination of the Western with the "women's apocalypse" themes worked well, and had lots of room to expand. But I didn't absolutely love it, and I think that might be because it's really quite short, and the ending feels a bit sudden to me. There was so much more room to really go into some of the themes and conundrums the author set up, which were left open-ended and not taken to their full potential. I feel that with more context to the book there would be so much more to discuss. It feels a bit like the author is revealing situations but not taking a position or showing an opinion on them; it's not often I think that a book needs more writing, but in this one I think it could have fleshed it out some more, given it more heft.
Still, it was thought-provoking and should stimulate discussion if read in a book club, for example. I can think of many partner reads to this one, like The Outcasts by Kathleen Kent, if you like the women in the west themes, or Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich, if you're more drawn to the apocalyptic fertility themes.