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The Outlander

by Gil Adamson

What was Gil Adamson thinking when she titled her novel The Outlander? What was Anansi thinking? After all, that’s the name of the first book in Diana Gabaldon’s wildly successful time-travel series that spirits a woman from 1945 London back to 1743 Scotland, where she experiences hot sex.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s exactly what they were thinking.

The hero of Gil Adamson’s book is also a woman, and there’s a little bit of hot sex in her story (some cold sex, too – hey, it’s Canadian), but there the resemblance to Gabaldon’s book ends. Adamson’s outlander is Mary Boulton, a 19-year-old “widow by her own hand” – in other words, a murderess on the lam. Shades of another well-known book: Atwood’s Alias Grace, though the setting and speed of Adamson’s tale are quite different from the claustrophobia of Atwood’s. The year is 1903, the location somewhere in the Crowsnest Pass region of the Rockies. Mary is fleeing from her husband’s two brothers, who do not take kindly to her having shot their closest kin in the thigh and watched him bleed to death.

How many women were there, one wonders, in something like Mary’s situation in Canada’s early days? Her father was an Anglican minister in the East who lost his faith and his job and hit the bottle after his wife died of lupus. Mary is pushed out of the house into the arms of the first man who shows interest, hitched to a wagon-train heading west, and dumped into a tiny cabin in the woods, where she gives birth to a sickly child who almost immediately dies. When Mary’s husband begins fooling around with one of the few other females in their rustic, godforsaken community, picking up a rifle seems, in Adamson’s telling, just as logical as it is appalling.

Mary’s is a classic road story, episodic and adventurous. First a genteel old lady takes her in (although gentility in the 19th-century West included details like this: “We women spent time in our beds after the chores, just to keep warm […] dogs lay at our feet and the cats crawled in under the blankets. We all had fleas. You simply lived with that fact”). Then Mary steals a horse, climbs a mountain, meets a grizzly, loses her horse, and is found on the ground, hallucinating from starvation, by a mountain man, “the Ridgerunner,” as the local constabulary call him.

A somewhat unbelievable romantic interlude ensues – can you imagine what the Ridgerunner must smell like after nine years of camping out in the Rockies? – that ends when he simply disappears into the forest one morning, clearly allergic to commitment. Alone again, Mary is plucked up by a native hunter, who delivers her unceremoniously to the closest white town: Frank, Alberta.

Yes, that Frank, the Frank of the Frank Landslide, the worst landslide in North American history, when the whole east face of Turtle Mountain sheared off into the valley below, moving 74 million tons of limestone in a minute and a half and crushing the life out of at least 76 people. Suddenly a novel that had the hallucinatory quality of Ondaatje or Peter Oliva’s brilliant Drowning in Darkness turns into straightforward historical fiction, where the enormity of external events overpowers the rather intriguing story of Mary’s ordeal. The two brothers close in, and so does the Ridgerunner, giving the end of the book a Hollywood air.

Did Adamson have the movies in mind in writing this novel? Certainly her style is cinematic: “Jeffrey was in the stalls sorting through old bridles when the door went dim, as if a cloud had passed over.” That’s a strikingly visual way of announcing the menacing arrival of the brothers at one of Mary’s hiding places.

But what is interesting about the book, and would probably be quite difficult to capture on film, is the fact that most of the characters come from well-heeled backgrounds (the brothers are always described in their “fine black boots”) and now find themselves battling the elements in one of the most forbidding environments on Earth. This is what continues to give Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush such power, and Adamson’s description of Mary’s upbringing strikes a similar note: “a mire of useless things: sonatas and études; the art of a good menu; trousseaux … Bedtime at nine … Alabaster skin and parasols.” These are the items that run through her mind as she tries to puzzle out which alpine plants will keep her from starvation and which will kill her instantly.

There are plenty of improbabilities in The Outlander, and yet it’s a great read. Adamson is an impressive stylist who knows how to keep an unlikely story moving at a swift and graceful pace.