On its premise it’s an exciting idea: a classic American tale with the script flipped starring a woman as the leading man. In the case of Anna North’s “Outlawed,” the stage is the Western novel and the leading lady is Ada, an 18-year-old fugitive on the run in 1894.
There’s always a test involved when a stunt of this kind is pulled: will it hold up on its face as a compelling story? Will it critically annotate the old form while simultaneously imbuing the second translation with new life, new meaning, and verve, from the new perspective?
The results in North’s tale are varied and breathe new life into the Western format. Fans of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” are in for a stellar ride where gender roles, sexuality, agency, and self discovery come together, making North’s story as experimental and novel as it is classic. Married young, North’s protagonist Ada finds she is infertile. In a society where children are expected of women (if they cannot deliver them, they are relegated to the fringes of civilized life). Ada struggles to find her place. From her mother, a midwife, she downloads knowledge of anatomy, pregnancy, and abortion, but she doesn’t know how to solve her own dilemma. After an affair with another man and a stint in a convent, she rides off in search of a woman who might be able to help her bear a child herself. Before she finds her, though, Ada joins a group of outlawed women — a band of fugitives known as the Hole In the Wall Gang led by The Kid: a captivating former preacher-turned-robber whose intellectual project is to make the world safer and more accepting of barren women by reclaiming land and communities that have forsaken them.
North renders a dazzling landscape, punctuated by a musicality that lulls you like a folk song: “I saw stands of birch and aspen quivering in the breeze, and a herd of pronghorn drinking from the heart-shaped pond.” This, paired with Ada’s coming of age story, one that challenges gender norms (Ada falls for a man who was ostracized from his town for falling in love with a man; in turn he falls for Ada when he first meets her dressed as a gentleman), makes North’s world one worth spending time in. And there are moments of thrilling insight, as when Ada muses, “It made me smile to think of myself as a wife to myself, the woman I could’ve been and the man I was pretending to be. Both of them luckier in life than the person I really was.”
Like other members of the outlawed group, Ada dresses like a cowboy, hair trimmed short, dungarees, and boots: " I could see something dimly then, a new way of looking and being.” Ada develops her identity in these moments — not quite choosing to be all woman or all man. North’s exploration of queerness against the backdrop of the American West spins the classic western aknew where gender roles and identity collapse. The Kid delivers a soap-box speech to Ada early in the novel that underlines the project of the outlaw group: “We may be barren in body ... but we shall be fathers of many nations, fathers and mothers both…. I knew that we would build a nation of the dispossessed, where we would be not barren women, but kings.”
Ada develops her own sense of self by gradually rejecting the categories that are known to her: “I realized I knew almost nothing about the lives of cowboys, the people I was supposed to be imitating,” Ada thinks at one point. This is where North’s project shines. She notes the limited icons women are allowed to inhabit (both in life and in literature): “seductive as a mistress and tender as a mother.” North imagines a new woman of the West — one determined to set records straight about her worth — with or without children.
North’s rendering of race is less sure-footed. In one saloon scene, Ada worries about her voice passing for a man’s, but then her attention turns to the rest of the room: “[I] looked around the room and saw that nearly everyone in the bar — the other cowboys, the women giggling at their jokes ... was white.” These offhand observations get muddled at times and don’t get the same attention that Ada’s personal development does. Race, class, and gender are all on Ada’s mind, but the power structures where those things intersect occasionally get lost. This time the dry earth was hard fought by women, yes, and women trying to rewrite history on their terms. But the land was still claimed by Whiteness.
I wonder what we’re supposed to make of exchanging a white cowboy action figure for a white cowperson action figure in a world where rebelling against bigotry is at the novel’s center. In the end, though, the novel is breathtaking in its recalibration of gender roles. The challenge is to imagine a world where categories, expectations, and conventions of American life collapse enough to birth real change.
By Anna North
Bloomsbury, 272 pages, $26
Amy Pedulla is a writer and radio producer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and