Author: Anna North
Mood: If you care about women’s and LGBTQ+ rights and want a fresh Western novel that smoothly blends your favourite genre with hauntingly familiar issues.
There ought to be a law against writing a book as good as Outlawed. I kind of hate it, because I wish I wrote it myself.
It’s the best feeling when a book gives you a truly fresh and unique take on a genre, and Outlawed does exactly that. It’s a young adult Western, but also fantastic dystopian historical fiction, and even further an excellent addition to LGBTQ+ fiction.
It’s the perfect inverse of Sci-Fi, because it’s about an alternate past so f*cked up that people have completely shunned science for religion.
Most reviews compare this book to The Handmaid’s Tale, which I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t read or even seen the TV series. But for the sake of this review I did some quick research into Canadian national treasure Margaret Atwood’s novel and can confirm: Outlawed is very that.
It’s like, if you can’t make babies for Jesus, you’re a witch and deserve to die, period.
This book is EXTREMELY relevant right now, with the United States on the brink of overturning Roe v. Wade. That isn’t to say it’s all dark and without joy – it’s got so many great moments of sweetness and humour. And make no mistake, it’s a Western at its core.
It’s a good read for women, for teenagers, for trans and non-binary folks, for allies and feminists and anyone who might appreciate a Western rooted in modern political, religious, and social issues.
Outlawed takes place in the late 1800s. Seventeen-year-old Ada likes hanging out with her girlfriends, and she’s about to get married to her school sweetheart. Seems pretty typical for a pioneer teen.
But before Ada’s time, God supposedly sent a flu to wipe out nine in every ten people. The parts of the United States that had formed dissolved, and the surviving frontier towns struggled on independently. Jesus appeared to Mary of Texarkana, and said that if people made babies he would spare them another sickness.
So now the rule is that women have to make babies, and if they don’t, every time something goes wrong in a town you can accuse the barren women of witchcraft and they get stoned, hung, stoned and hung, or otherwise killed. Young women are taught in school how to be a good baby-maker, and expect to grow up as such.
Unlike her BFFs, Ada was raised on science. Her mama is a midwife and Ada is apprenticing to take over, so she knows that the old wives’ tales about women’s bodies aren’t true. Unfortunately, this information is useless when Ada herself can’t conceive. Her husband’s family throws her out, her best friend accuses her of witchcraft, and the sheriff comes a-knocking.
Ada’s only hope of survival, and pursuing the study of reproductive health, is to disappear. She just never expected to fall in with the notorious Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, and become a part of their biggest crime spree yet.
Although Ada is the protagonist, she’s arguably the least interesting personality in Outlawed. And she’s still an awesome character!
She’s smart but impulsive, determined yet deeply flawed. Ada is kind of like the classic ‘inept bard’ character who follows the captivating leader and you experience them through her awe-struck eyes – The Kid is that leader.
In this version of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, The Kid is a non-binary outlaw with compassion for barren women. They have a penchant for dramatic speech and grand schemes, but are troubled with rapidly deteriorating mental health.
The other outlaws in the gang include women with strong skill in horsemanship, fighting, and shooting. Some are queer, others are straight, and each has a rich and unique backstory that shines a spotlight on serious issues still rearing up today. But the women all share the common ‘flaw’ of failing to produce babies for an unforgiving town.
My favourite characters are Texas (the intuitive horsewoman, obvs) and News, who dresses in male drag and is basically a spymaster of the highest rank. I kept picturing Cuffee from The Harder They Fall.
And then there’s the beautifully written Lark. I can’t give away anything about his character, but I fell hard and fast for him in a short time.
What I didn’t expect from Outlawed was how realistically miserable Ada’s journey would be.
The vibe of the book, while full of serious adult dystopian themes, is still pretty YA. But Ada fails repeatedly at assimilating with just about everyone.
At first she briefly joins a convent that secretly takes in barren women. Although Ada excels in transcribing books for a traveling bookseller, she can’t be content with convent life. The Mother Superior has a connection with The Kid, and you get the sense that her decision to send Ada off to the life of an outlaw still comes from a place of caring.
Then Ada messes up time and again while trying to find her place in the gang, getting one member shot and messing up a heist.
It’s not that romanticized story of a gunslinger savant or a natural cowgirl or someone so charismatic or endearing that people love her – she’s shunned even within a group of other outlaws. Like in modern times, where we struggle to make friends and we fail hard before we find our way, the story is more about Ada’s journey than any kind of clear destination.
You spend most of Outlawed unsure of what to root for, and that makes for a riveting story.
You want Ada to be safe, but none of her life options seem quite right. You want the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang to thrive, but they disagree on their mission so you kind of also want them to back down and choose another path that doesn’t get them all killed. You want to protect these women who have been given death sentences by everyone they love – but you also want revenge.
Any Western fan is also eagerly cheering for a big bank robbery, big shootouts, and all of the glorious action that this book serves.
Literally my only criticism of Outlawed is that I would love to see what it read like if it was grittier. If it sank deeper into witch hunts and mental health and xenophobia. These are adult themes, and I want to see that taken all the way.
Amy Adams has already optioned this book, which is a no-brainer since it’s a Reese Witherspoon’s book club pick – but will they fill this “hot new feminist Western” with Gen Z stars to appeal to teens and a broader audience? Or could they lean into the hauntingly real theme of women’s bodies being only designed for reproduction, and make it the truly terrifying possible reality that we need to see?
There are no details on the IMDB page, so I guess we’ll wait and see. In the meantime, don’t sleep on this book! If you made it this far, you’re obviously someone who will appreciate it.