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 a past 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 to paint the life of Mary Boulton, a 19-year-old widow, in joyful and harrowing strokes.
In early 1900s rural Canada, Mary, suffering from postpartum depression and the loss of her infant child, comes unhinged, shooting the virtual stranger who is her uncaring, adulterous husband in the leg and letting him hemorrhage to death. Once on the run, her late husband’s brothers pursue her with cold rage across the early frontier wilderness.
Although this novel came out over ten years ago, it remains one of my favorites due to the sweeping, piercing prose. In the same vein as James Dickey (Deliverance) and Mike Allen, Ms. Adamson is a poet first and a novelist second.
In the beginning, Mary is fleeing, cold and lost, eventually 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.
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.
The atmosphere reminded me a lot of The Revenant, which I’ve talked about before: not much happening, not much talking, but underneath, a vast and sumptuous inner life of emotions and unspoken comments existed, a luxuriant landscape where contemplation and imagination still reigned because all the crap we’re surrounded by today had yet to be invented.
Mary ends up in Frank, Alberta, the location of the worst landslide 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, but more subtle connections to immense, unknowable emotions, complex and tangled relationships, and even one’s own supposed purpose in being alive are hinted at 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 beings more or less walking in the shadow of society and certainly of men. When Mary starts thinking of a man she met and connected with on many levels, 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’s powerless to deny it, just as we all are finally powerless, in the larger scope, existing resolutely as we do in the shadow of the mountain–or fate, or destiny–but often made brave and strong for doing so.
I shivered on my couch as the phantom snow fell and the stars reeled, fully immersed in a wild, raw life described in turns tenderly and brutally. Mary’s journey consumes one. In wondering where she’ll end up, you end up there with her.