Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Outlawed is set in 1894 in an unidentified State of the USA. Ada lives under a law that requires young women marry and have children. Failure to produce a child in a reasonable time carries the consequence of divorce and social disfavour. Rumour is sufficient for a charge of practising witchcraft, for which the penalty is death by hanging. (Historical accuracy is a casualty, a fatality, in this book). Thus, Anna North paints a picture of a society dominated by men.
In less serious cases, the usual cliché of banishing a socially isolated woman to a convent follows. However, our heroine Ada wants to expand her knowledge of medicine as it applies to women and persuades the Mother Superior to allow her to travel (unsupervised) with a travelling bookseller into the wilds to join the Hole in the Wall Gang. (Sure, she did!). The Mother Superior extends herself in protecting eighteen-year-old women in her charge to caution, “If you go up to Hole in the Wall, you won’t be safe anymore. And other people won’t be safe from you” (44).
Locating the Gang is simple. Having been abandoned in the darkness Ada pushes through some major scrub before being rescued by the sound of a fiddle. She discovers one of Shakespeare’s favourite scenes, care-free country folk, decked in flowers, dancing and singing in the presence of their leader, the Kid. Ada meets Agnes Rose, Cassie, Texas, Faith, Elzy and God knows who else.
The situation is: we have the leader of the Gang, the Kid, who spouts obscure passages from scripture for no discernible purpose; Cassie who has spent more time than the others with the Kid and has the hots for her. She becomes annoyed when anyone else has the Kid’s attention. We have other female characters whose individuality is lost.
The Gang makes its living by stealing and on-selling prize horses, by sticking-up coaches and the occasional bank. Killing people who resist is ‘just part of the job’. There are the stock posse-in-pursuit situations. Both parties take bullets: the followers, when shot, are killed; the women being pursued take wounds that Ada can fix without trouble. Have I told you the Hole in the Wall Gang is all women dressed in men’s clothes who train themselves to walk and sound like men? (I wonder what Freud would have said about that?)
There are examples of sloppy thinking. How did the Kid and Cassie, alone for five years initially, stay alive? The justifications for following the Kid’s plan to rob a bank, and then pose as a prosperous stranger prepared to buy the bank, save the town, and thereby gain respectability, are unconvincing (except to morons). The Hole in the Wall is virtually impregnable as access is only from one direction. Attackers must approach only from the front and from below. Yet the sheriff appears above the defenders and has Ada in his sights. The Kid suddenly appears above and kills the sheriff. Ada lives…
Why am I bothering? The story is just silly.
by Anna North
Weidenfeld & Nicholson
$32.99; 272 pp