It was night, and dogs came through the trees, unleashed and howling.
Much like the intriguing first line of Mike Allen’s “The Button Bin”, mentioned in an earlier post, the first line of Gil Adamson’s “The Outlander” flies out like the dogs she’s speaking of: unleashed and howling. And then the novel continues in unfaltering prose, painting the life of Mary Boulton, a 19-year-old widow, in alternately joyful and harrowing strokes.
I imagine that’s how life in early 1900s rural Canada would be anyway, but more so for a woman on the run after committing the most egregious crime of murdering her own husband. Joyful and harrowing. The circumstances by themselves are unusual: Mary, suffering from postpartum depression and related psychosis, loses her infant child and comes unhinged after her husband, a rough and uncaring man whom she barely knows, engages adulterously with another woman. After shooting him in the leg and letting him hemorrhage to death, she sets out on the run from her late husband’s twin brothers who pursue her with a cold and relentless rage across the early frontier wilderness.
Although this novel came out almost ten years ago, in 2007, it remains one of my favorites due to the sweeping poetic language and unremittingly meaningful images and suppositions. In the same vein as James Dickey and Mike Allen, Ms. Adamson is a poet first and a novelist second, and when reading either “Deliverance,” “Unseaming,” or “The Outlander,” the reader will realize that something larger is going on, immersed as one immediately becomes in the politics and labyrinths and myths and rhythms and conundrums of the written word.
As stated by Sarah Sacha Dollacker in BrowseBook Review: Nothing is too minuscule for Adamson’s notice: the mud at the bottom edge of Mary’s hem, the glint in the brothers-in-laws’ animal-like eyes, the color of the sky, the smell of the trees. Each sentence and paragraph is worth the contemplation of any great poem.
So true, so true. Carrie O’Grady had this to say in The Guardian:
Inevitably, there are echoes of Cormac McCarthy. Adamson’s writing is very different – richer, more rueful – but her novel shares that sense of troubled souls rattling around in a vast, hostile landscape, saying little yet feeling much.
I wonder about those days, don’t you? When people didn’t necessarily talk very much while underneath a vast and sumptuous inner life of emotions and unspoken comments thrived, a luxuriant landscape where contemplation and patience and imagination still reigned because computers and cars and iphones and television hadn’t been invented yet.
Also fascinating is the placement of Mary’s character in Frank, Alberta, the location of the famous landslide, the worst in North American history, where millions of tons of limestone peeled off the eastern side of Turtle Mountain and slid into the valley, killing 70 to 90 of the inhabitants below. The mountain itself seems symbolic of many things: the uncontrollable whims of the earth being the most transparent, especially during a time when people struggled day-to-day to survive, but the more subtle connections to immense, unknowable emotions, complex and tangled relationships, and even one’s own supposed purpose in being alive are hinted at and murmured over in a constant background subtext.
Although I wasn’t overly fond of Mary being referred to as “the widow” for the whole novel, I understand the impetus: women as nameless creatures more or less walking in the shadow of society and certainly in that of men. When Mary starts thinking, for example, of a man she met and connected with on many levels, including physical, it’s to say this:
As helpless as water to the pull of gravity, the window’s heart ran to William Moreland. Pooling there, wasted, unwanted…How foolish it was to let a man in, how terrible his power once you did.
As helpless as she feels, loving someone who abandoned her, she yet can’t deny the feelings, can’t deny the pull, can’t deny being powerless, just as we all are powerless, in the larger scope, loping resolutely in the shadow of the “mountain”…or fate or destiny. In the beginning when she’s still running, she’s cold and lost, on the verge of death. I haven’t often come across an author who can describe near-starvation with such subjective objectivity:
She shivered in her blighted cloth while phantom snow fell and the stars above reeled. …She felt nothing of her body except a complex of inflexible sinew across her back.
I shivered on my couch as the phantom snow fell and the stars reeled in the sky above as I read this book, imagining life back then, wild and frightening and raw, described in turns tenderly and brutally in luxurious language. Mary’s journey, exciting and terrifying, consumes one. In wondering where she’ll end up, you end up there with her. Beautiful and satisfying and well worth reading.