“These VERY DANGEROUS CRIMINALS are known to harbor among them WITCHES and people of MIXED BREED, and to engage in UNNATURAL BEHAVIOR and DRESS. They are capable of all manner of DECEPTION and TRICKERY and should be approached with GREAT CARE. A REWARD of FIVE HUNDRED GOLD EAGLES shall be paid for any information leading to the capture of these DEPRAVED PERSONS.”
Anna North’s Outlawed is flawed, but an easy, somewhat satisfying read. The book’s handling of gender non-conforming and non-white characters is questionable, and the main character barely has a personality. And yet i’d be lying if i said i didn’t enjoy aspects of this book.
Called a “feminist Western” by Vox, this book combines the reproduction as oppression trope of The Handmaid’s Tale with America’s obsession with Westerns, a genre cultivated out of the “Manifest Destiny” march west from Virginia to Kansas to Texas to California; and the rise of the “cowboy” and “Wild West” in popular imagery.
I’ll say right now I really do not understand the romanticization of the American Western – never been into this genre ever in my life. But the combination of the Western and The Handmaid’s Tale? Well, that’s at least a little interesting visually.
Outlawed by Anna North starts in 1894. I stress this because I think readers should go into this read with an understanding that the comments on gender and race from characters are supposed to reflect their time period. I hope no one is going into this book thinking that the characters are going to be progressive.
The main character is seventeen-year-old Ada, from a town called Fairchild, who is the daughter of the town’s ultra-trustworthy midwife, who has just married a nice boy from a good family and is expected to have children. In Fairchild, and across the colonies, a woman who cannot produce a child is kicked out of the home and hanged as a witch, or goes away quietly and becomes a nun.
After a year passes with no pregnancy, the town’s sheriff tells Ada she has to leave her family. Quietly, she can go and join the nuns at The Mother Superior of the Sisters of the Holy Child. There, barren women can pray, take care of animals, and restore books.
But Ada’s anger, both at herself for being barren and for society for believing myths about women who can’t produce children, leads her to leave the nun and join a gang of outlaws called Hole in Wall, made up of barren/ousted women and nonbinary characters: Cassie, News, Texas, Lo, Elzy, Agnes Rose, and The Kid (a nonbinary character who leads the group).
These characters, in their schemes to commit robberies, often dress and act like men – which makes sense in a society where people read as women aren’t allowed mobility. The outlaws in general are very gender and sexual fluid.
Toward the end, however, The Kid comes up with an idea to execute a heist that will allow them to take a whole town in hopes that they can create a community where barren women can stay without fear of death, jail, or nunnery.
Let’s talk about the negatives.
The main character, Ada, has no personality. I don’t say this lightly. Because a lot of people confuse meek/shy with no personality. But I mean it when I say this book didn’t do much in the way of showing us Ada as a person distinct from the rest.
From what the book showed us, one thing about Ada is that she is inquisitive. She asks a lot of questions, and characters recognize that about her. She’s also a good midwife in her own right, being called “Doc” by the outlaws and being the go-to for when someone has an ailment.
But her passions and personality come through like faded colors. I wish we had more about what makes Ada tick and what she cared about in life besides having children. Perhaps that was the point – showing how women are made dull in a society that requires them to only want to be a mother and wife?
A lot of reviewers mentioned how The Kid could have gone by they/them instead of always being called The Kid and I agree. I get the effect of always calling a character by their name (it has the effect of making a character legendary-like), but it came off clunky in some parts, especially when The Kid was a part of the scene and constantly had to be referred to. They/them would have sufficed.
The issue with the Western as a genre, and thus Outlawed, is that you have to ignore so much of the background violence. Granted, I think these places and the setting are partially fictionalized – but there’s only so much you can ignore before it becomes white-washing.
There are Native American characters, but only two are specifically named, one of which is Nòkton, one of the traders they barter goods with. That’s not a natural telling of the story. White people didn’t just create towns in 1894 in the Americans without pushback. In fact, several uprisings called the “Indian Wars” happened in the 19th century including: the Sioux Uprising of 1862, the Sand Creek Massacre (1864), and Wounded Knee in 1890.
Same with the Black characters in this book. There’s racism and talk of how races shouldn’t mix. But no mention of slavery and the story is told as if Black and white characters are generally treated the same by most people. Again, knowing that the Emancipation Proclamation occurred in 1863, that simply cannot be possible. One of the Black characters, News, is an outlaw and is aware of racism but seems content not talking about it and putting herself in situations where only white people are present.....hmm........
So now the positives:
It’s annoying to some when white women fall back on reproduction rights and hanged witches when they create an oppressed system. I get it – but I’m also going to be honest and say that it does not bother me. That is what oppresses them, and I rather they talk about what they know than shoehorn in the experiences of women of color.
Therefore, the centering of midwifery, exploration of birthing as a gift and a curse, and the ways men doctors fail to accurately treat women with illnesses were very interesting plot pieces that I wished the book explored even more. Especially when Ada does everything to get her hands on a book written by a man and used by “the medical students in Chicago,” only to find out the man who wrote the book has no idea about the illness that primarily affect women. That rings true today and I don’t think talking about reproductive rights and misdiagnosis is inherently white feminist.
All in all, interesting and fairly enjoyable book. But Westerns just aren’t for me. The white-washing required to pull it off as an inclusive space almost makes it not worth it.