Outlawed by Anna North is a thrilling tale of one woman’s journey from baby-maker to gun-slinger and her adventures with the notorious ‘Hole in the Wall Gang’, as she rides towards a metaphorical sunset glimmering with answers and promise.
“And so I began my criminal career there in the house of God, with a leaky pen instead of a pistol and books instead of silver for my reward.”
Outlawed first came to my attention at the beginning of this year, with big expectations from the publishing industry. It’s the third novel from Anna North, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who has been a writer and editor at Jezebel, BuzzFeed, Salon, and the New York Times. North is now a senior reporter at Vox.
We are in “the year of our Lord 1894”.
Ada has two loves: her husband whom she married at age 17 and her apprenticeship with her mother, a respected midwife.
But in a time when a women’s role was to bear children — and those who are barren are deemed witches — Ada discovers her ‘failure’ to bear a child leaves her in perilous danger.
It seems she must leave behind the town and her beloved family.
She joins up with the notorious Hole in the Wall Gang, a band of outlaws led by a preacher-turned-robber known to all as the Kid. The Kid is mysterious. The Kid is potentially dangerous. But The Kid is also determined to create a safe haven for outcast women. The Kid says: “Years I wandered, cowboying, rustling. I lived as a man and as a woman; no life suited me. Then I met Cassie. As long as I could protect her, I told myself, I would be worth something.”
Ada takes on the characteristics of the gang — cutting her hair, wearing men’s clothing, embracing fluidity. Her ultimate aim (asides from gaining safety within the gang’s folds) is to travel further out west to a renowned midwife and prevent other women being cast out of their towns or hanged for witchcraft.
Meanwhile, to truly cement independence and safety for the women in this gang of highway robbers, The Kid and their Gang hatch a treacherous plan that may just get them all killed.
“I realized I knew almost nothing about the lives of cowboys, the people I was supposed to be imitating…”
I mean, that red and pink is glorious. Paired with the blue and yellow for primary colour magic, a typical Western font, the bitmap textures and pop-art portrait vibes… I’m in love.
North brings to life the dusty red terrain of the western US terrain in prose that’s redolent with visceral textures. Her writing is smart and slick; punchy yet not devoid of heart.
Just like a typical Western film, the plot crescendos into a final action-packed sequence. This is where I really perked up. I love a good shoot-out! It wouldn’t be a Western without one. The characters’ stories are mostly all resolved, albeit in a relatively tidy way.
And when it came to barrenness, he listed the following possible causes: frigid or irresponsible mother, wearing boys’ clothes at a young age, too many spicy or bitter foods, idleness, and excessive focus on unwomanly pursuits like bookkeeping.
This is a book with a big ambition: to upend the classic western genre and ensure female character/s take the reins, so to speak. Even more so, North wants to break down ideas of gender binary, most particularly pronounced in the character of The Kid, who was formerly married to a man and with views of becoming a preacher — but who now lives life as a non-binary outlaw.
Ideas of gender roles and diversity were intriguing to me, which is why I wanted to read this book. I enjoyed the no-nonsense approach to recasting the ‘usual suspects’ and creating strong female characters. I appreciated North’s intent with traversing the terrain of class, sexuality and societal expectations. Making heroes out of those who don’t fit the mould or who can’t (or won’t) live up to society’s expectations. It’s an interesting narrative to explore — women’s burden on bearing children, as if that is all we are capable of and all that we should deliver in life.
Where North stumbles is the intersectionality of race, class and gender. Whiteness still abounds aplenty in this novel; despite attempts to dismiss or denounce the idea of ‘white saviourism’.
Overall, I liked this coming of age story. Ada is determined for answers to her barrenness and her ability to navigate a tough world strengthen as the novel progresses.
I saw how the valley, now blooming into beauty after the long winter, could feel like home. What I had planned instead was so amorphous and uncertain. …
But if I stayed in the valley, I would learn no more about myself or people like me than I had known when I left … I would die without knowing what made me the way I was.
Book Club Questions
What were your initial thoughts to Ada’s circumstances in Fairchild?
What did you make of this alternate history going on in the Wild West?
In the story, women cop a lot of the blame for things that are out of their hands, or someone else’s doing. Has much changed in our modern society?
What is religion’s role in this story? Do you agree with this portrayal?
Would you have done what Ada did? The convent, the gang?
When do you think Ada truly felt at home with The Hole in the Wall Gang?
In what ways does Ada grow?
Whose character did you most identify with?
What did you make of The Kid — their struggles, demons, strengths, vision?
Every major character in the story was mistreated either physically or psychologically (or both) for varying circumstances. Do you see similarities with treatment of people today, especially those from the LGBTQ community?
Fable and Fizz would like to acknowledge the Whadjuck Noongar people as the traditional owners and continual custodians on the lands and waters this content is primarily written on. I pay respects to their Elders — past and present. This always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land.