The Outlander is a galloping mad dash of a novel taking the reader across the Canadian Rocky Mountains in late winter of the year 1903. The first chapter opens with a young woman running wildly through the bush being chased by howling bloodhounds. Going forward two pages we are told that she is nineteen and a widow, “… by her own hand,” meaning she killed her husband. We sense this was pre meditated murder and not an accident, why else would there be bloodhounds? This is but the beginning of the adventure and with a bit of luck and the help of some very interesting and unique characters she meets along the way the widow survives a gruelling trek on foot through a snow filled mountain pass.
When I recounted the basic arc of this story to my husband his comment was: “… a picaresque novel !” He is right up to a point; the novel does have elements of the picaresque and for the first hundred pages I read this book with the same pleasant naiveté that I would have read Huckleberry Finn at the age of eleven. Perhaps it is the sign of a good book that I did not stop to analyse what genre it might be. It does have good company and not just Huck Finn but Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, in this case tinged with the raw edge of the untamed brutal living conditions of the Canadian west at the turn of the 20th century. However, a picaresque novel is meant to be satirical and I did not think The Outlander particularly satirical or trying to convey any sort of social or cautionary message although there is reference to the blind stupidity of greedy mine owners who do not heed glaringly obvious signs of unsafe conditions.
The term outlander means someone who is a stranger or foreigner much the same way as we who live on an island refer to mainlanders. The fugitive murderess of this novel is the obvious outlander although ninety percent of the characters in this novel come from somewhere else… that is from ‘away’ . They are not only strangers but some are utterly strange or to be kinder I’ll say ‘unique’. I’ll give you an example; there is the soft hearted and generous Pastor Bonnycastle who is supporting his church by trading in stolen horses and illustrating his interpretation of Christianity by seeing how well members of his congregation do competing with him in a boxing match. Every Sunday there is a ‘two for the price of one’ admission; get your soul saved and watch a darn good fist fight.
The young woman running from the hounds is Mary Boulton who grew up in a comfortable middle class home in Eastern Canada. There is a hint of mental illness about her as she suffers from hallucinations that are likely derived from childhood trauma. She is an only child raised by her father and grandmother after the death of her mother. She married a much older man who promised her independence from her family and a great estate out west. The great estate turned out to be a vast expanse of land with a tiny primitive cabin. Mary struggled to learn how to survive in these conditions bringing no other skill to the scene but the ability to sew. As the story progresses Mary turns out to be a wily survivor as she navigates the bush hounded by her husband’s red headed brothers. Moreover she is happily blessed with a fair amount of plain everyday good luck. The circumstances leading up to the death of her husband are revealed slowly throughout the book but murder is just the propellant that ignites this story, its charm lies in the characters that help Mary along the way and her resourcefulness in trying to escape her husband’s ominous and deadly serious twin brothers who pursue her with the relentless determination a juggernaught.
In her acknowledgements the author mentions newspapers and journals to which she referred in writing this book. The benefit of this research can be appreciated in the details added to the narrative that give it an air of authenticity. How did people keep warm at night with no source of heating? How do you take a bath in sub-zero temperatures? Is a porcupine edible? Mary Boulton learns a lot of useful things as she tries to survive a Canadian winter. It is clear that in 1903, despite the fact that a train ran through the Rockies, civilization was a tenuous thing although there were surprising little touches of gentility such as a jail keeper’s wife who served prisoners their meals on china dinnerware.
In addition to adventure The Outlander has its share of romance as Mary falls in love with a fugitive hermit called the Ridgerunner. He prefers living on his own and is bound to his lifestyle by the beauty of the mountains, the sky, and the trees. With the help of a few practical items pilfered from the camps and outposts of the law enforcement officers he has survived many years on his own. One of the first things he asks Mary when they meet is what year it is. When she tells him it’s 1903 he realizes that he has miscounted the years somewhere along the way and missed the new millennium entirely. The Ridgerunner becomes so fond of Mary that he has to run away from her, as he fears she might entice him to give up his beloved solitude.
Mary settles down briefly in a mining town called Frank keeping house for Pastor Bonnycastle and working for the trading post as a barber to the unkempt miners whose skin is stained the color of the coal they dig out of the earth. Frank was and is today a real town in the Crowsnest Pass of Alberta. In 1903 Frank suffered a geological catastrophe when a third of the mountain situated over the coal mine collapsed on part of the town. The author does a seamless job of blending actual events with the fictional ones.
I loved this book. to me it was a revitalizing sort of tonic in the dead of winter when the nights are so dark and I am apt to stay inside hibernating where it is warm.