Book Review

Outlawed by Anna North

TW/CW for the book and this review: discussions of infertility, death in childbirth.

Have you ever thought to yourself, “I wish I could read a Western that has a queer girl gang”?

Well, guess what? I have great news.

While I don’t typically read Westerns, I was drawn in by the blurb for Outlawed:

The day of her wedding, 17 year old Ada’s life looks good; she loves her husband, and she loves working as an apprentice to her mother, a respected midwife. But after a year of marriage and no pregnancy, in a town where barren women are routinely hanged as witches, her survival depends on leaving behind everything she knows.

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. Charismatic, grandiose, and mercurial, the Kid is determined to create a safe haven for outcast women. But to make this dream a reality, the Gang hatches a treacherous plan that may get them all killed. And Ada must decide whether she’s willing to risk her life for the possibility of a new kind of future for them all.

I’m SO glad I read this book. I came up with two taglines for it and can’t decide which is better, so please enjoy both:

  1. Fuck the patriarchy.
  2. Badass women save themselves.

The narrator, Ada, shares all the grisly details of life in an alternate version of the Old West. Her voice and descriptions are so vivid that I occasionally wondered if people in the late 1800’s might have indeed worshipped fertility after a flu wiped out thousands. This world is brutal and women can’t win: they either have a high chance of dying in childbirth or, if they haven’t demonstrated the ability to carry a baby to term, get executed as a witch when the measles rolls through town or another woman miscarries her baby.

Ada recounts a couple of years of her life, starting with her marriage at 17. I appreciated seeing her articulate how much she cared about her husband and the way things spiralled when she wasn’t able to get pregnant. As much as he seemed like a good guy, I could understand why their marriage couldn’t survive her alternate method of trying to get pregnant once it was discovered.

Ada’s desperate measure for getting pregnant was...

…having sex with a local man who’d gotten other women pregnant under similar circumstances.

This part of the story worked very well for me because Ada tells us about her conversations with her mother around fertility, how it’s always blamed on women even though a couple’s lack of conception is just as often due to issues with the man’s body. In a world where having babies is a religious experience, of course the only answer is to blame and punish women. (Please see tagline 1 above.)

The blurb doesn’t mention it, but Ada has a pit stop at a convent before she joins the Hole in the Wall gang, and it’s key for her character arc. If she wanted to, Ada probably could have stayed there for the rest of her life, tucked away from the world and copying books so the convent would have materials to swap with their trader. When Ada confronts the nun she works with in the library, realizing that she’s been asked to write out a book with methods for inducing abortion in pregnancy, Ada learns the real reason the local sheriffs let them live in peace at the convent. Namely, that they’re kept away from society so they can’t hurt anyone with their “witchcraft”. (For the record, the sheriffs don’t know that the convent is reproducing radical texts like abortion manuals, or they’d likely hang the nuns.) In that moment, she has a choice: join the nuns and their quiet acts of resistance or go back to pretending at piety.

Sister Tom smiled then. “This is jail,” she said. “You don’t have to worry anymore. You’re already here.”

I could’ve refused, of course. I could’ve told Sister Tom to find someone else, and spent my free hours with Sister Rose, working my way through An Unmarried Woman’s Book of Daily Prayers. But I was curious— I wanted to know what the woman in Oxford knew that was so secret and dangerous Mama couldn’t even talk about it. 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.

Although Ada gets along fine with the nuns, she knows that convent life isn’t for her. The Handbook of Feminine Complaints delivers Ada’s new purpose: she needs to find the author, Mrs. Alice Schaeffer, so she can learn what actually causes infertility. Ada can tell from Mrs. Schaeffer’s book that she also believes everything they’ve been told about infertility (dem witches) is stupid, and Ada is determined to change the conversation across the West so women stop getting executed. Her best chance at meeting Mrs. Schaeffer is to join the Hole in the Wall gang and hope they can guide her safely to the midwife.

The lone similarity between the convent and the Hole in the Wall gang is that they’re both mostly comprised of badass women who weren’t able to conceive. Where the convent is all about that quiet resistance and hiding away from the world in a way that’s sanctioned by local law enforcement (the hiding, not the resistance, of course) the gang is forging a new path in the world and fucking up the typical order of things. They’re led by a person known only as the Kid. While the Kid doesn’t align with any gender after fleeing a marriage to a man, the Kid is committed to providing a haven for outcast women.

The gang is a true collective and each person has a role, whether that means cooking, teaching newbies to shoot and ride a horse, milking cows, or mucking out stalls. They’re more than coworkers or even people working towards the same goal. They give off strong found family vibes, so if that’s your thing, you might want to check this out. I say might because the gang doesn’t quickly or easily accept Ada, so it’s more like they’re their own found family and she never quite makes it to that level with them. This is because Ada makes a massive misstep early on in her time with them, which is very bad for the gang.

Ada’s misstep was...

…freaking out during her first job and shooting a person they were stealing from. This kicks off shots in the gang’s direction and their best shooter takes a bullet in her shooting arm. She sustains permanent damage and she can’t hunt for game or participate in certain types of heists anymore, so their food source is restricted and they can’t steal as much money.

Frankly, it’s to the Kid’s credit that the Kid doesn’t let the rest of the gang kick Ada out because she would have been well and truly screwed on her own.

It takes a long time for the gang to forgive and learn to respect Ada and I’m not sure all of them make it that far.

“How queer is this book, anyway?” you might be asking. Everyone in the Hole in the Wall gang is either queer or at least queer-friendly. Like I mentioned, their leader is nonbinary, although the Kid and the gang don’t use that specific word or they/them pronouns (“The Kid is just the Kid,” one of the members explains to Ada). The Kid has been involved with at least one woman in the gang at some point and some of the women are romantically involved with each other. That said, Ada doesn’t appear to be queer. She doesn’t develop romantic attraction for any of the women or the Kid, and when she does have sex, it’s with men. This didn’t bother me, but if you were hoping for a queer narrator, I’m pretty sure Ada isn’t it.

My only complaint is the ending. It’s not even that it’s bad. It’s actually very good! I’m just greedy and wanted more. I’m going to throw it behind the spoiler tag, but be warned, it is VERY spoilery.

No, seriously, I’m talking about the ending here

Remember Ada’s mission to join Mrs. Schaeffer? Well, Ada leaves the gang to go find her. She’s disappointed to find Mrs. Schaeffer’s abandoned home, but is happy to at least find all of her equipment and journals. The final paragraph is this:

I want to tell you about the years that followed, about the births I witnessed and the deaths, about the women I treated and the books I wrote, about what I learned from the notebooks and what, eventually, other midwives learned from me. But those are other stories for other days. This story ends in September in the year of our Lord 1895, when I came over the mountains a wife and a widow, a doctor and an outlaw, a robber and a killer and ever my mother’s daughter, and set up shop in the surgery of Mrs. Alice Schaeffer and got to work.

Wait, wait. Ada, you want to tell ME about that? Well, I want YOU to tell me about that, too! Seriously. Please give me that book.

I thought I was getting a book about a gang, but this story is more about finding your place in the world. While it wasn’t what I expected, it turned out to be exactly what I needed. For me, Outlawed was an incredible read. I would absolutely never want to visit this world, but I admire Ada for making her way in it and saving herself. I won’t forget her anytime soon.

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Outlawed by Anna North

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Add Your Comment →

  1. 1
    Vicki says:

    OMG, this sound so much like the book I need. I have supported midwives since I first found out about them in the 70s. (My husband and I even built a little furniture for the midwife program at Mt Zion in SF way back when.) Alternative history in the West! Nuns as resistance (another great trope). Found family. Queer women outlaws. OMG, off to one-click.

  2. 2
    Kareni says:

    This sounds fascinating, Tara; thanks for your review. (And what a neat cover!)

  3. 3
    Kathi says:

    I loved this book, and agree with you completely about the ending! Your spoiler made me laugh out loud. I had exactly the same reaction. I want that book too!

  4. 4
    Darlynne says:

    Agreed, this was a unique take on westerns and while not always an easy read, it really delivered. I, too, want to read Ada’s next story, to find out about those next years. Women find a way.

  5. 5
    Lisa F says:

    Oh yeah, this is my idea of catnip!

  6. 6
    srs says:

    I’m going to be a downer and say that I had a lot of issues with this book. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it is a good example of the toxic blindspots of white feminism. I don’t know how to do spoiler tags, so am just going to outline my issues in broad strokes.

    There’s a lot of gender essentialism, particularly for a book that ostensibly showcases trans and queer secondary characters. I initially excused it because the story is set in a gender essentialist world, but even characters like the members of the Hole in the Wall Gang buy into and reinforce gender essentialism in toxic ways and the narrative itself never truly questions the basic “rightness” of the gender binary.

    Ada also exhibits a lot of white saviour behaviour and I’d argue the narrative replicates white colonial patterns of thought and behaviour by centering a white cis het protagonist who learns all she can from queer and brown people before leaving them. In general (as a white cis het woman) I felt like the book centered me and my experience at the expense of everyone else. I’m not sorry I read it exactly, and I do see why it got a lot of praise, but I ultimately found it depressing rather than inspiring and it seems to me to be superficially transgressive while in actuality reinforcing a traditional paradigm.

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