Published on January 5, 2021, Outlawed is a recent celebrity in the book world. However, Anna North is not new to writing. North has three published novels including Outlawed, is currently a senior reporter at Vox, and previously worked as an editor and writer at the New York Times, Salon, Buzzfeed, and Jezebel. Head to her personal site HERE to learn more about her and her work.
Outlawed, set in the late-19th century Western United States, follows recently married 17 year old Ada, who lives in a town where barren women are hanged as witches. After a year of trying and no pregnancy, Ada has to leave her family and home to avoid being persecuted as a witch.
She joins the Hole in the Wall Gang, a group of outlaws led by the Kid. The Kid is working to create a safe haven for women who have been banished from their homes or left for fear of violence or death. Ada eventually must decide if she is willing to risk her life for the gang. For the full in depth summary go HERE.
Outlawed is an interesting new feminist take on “western” literature. Vox writer, Constance Grady, phrased it perfectly when introducing Outlawed, “…everything I want in a book: witchy nuns, heists, a marriage of convenience, and a midwife trying to build a bomb out of horse dung.”
Three things stuck out to me while reading North’s novel–the western reenvisioning, the ambiguous genre, and the overarching discussions about gender and race (subtle and not so subtle).
Does it live up to being an “Ol’ Western”?
Rather than being based off of one person or significant event, Outlawed is more of a retelling of the Western U.S. during the late-19th century. However, North maintains seeds of historical truth and inspiration in her novel.
The Hole in the Wall Gang plays a large part in Outlawed and actually existed in Wyoming, U.S. during the 19th century. The historical Hole in the Wall Gang was a collective of multiple gangs of outlaws that coexisted in the area because it was easy to defend; however, there was no single leader of all the individual gangs. It was even home to the famous Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch Gang.
Read more about Hole in the Wall HERE.
During the 1880s to about 1910, Hole in the Wall was home to famous male outlaws like Butch Cassidy, William Ellsworth Lay or Elzy, Harry Longabaugh or Sundance Kid, Ben Kilpatrick or Tall Texan, and more. In Outlawed, the names of the women and gender non-conforming members of the Hole in the Wall are adaptations of the historical versions.
|Historical Name||Novel Name|
|William Ellsworth Lay or “Elzy”||Elzy|
|Harry Longabaugh or “Sundance Kid”||The Kid|
|George Curry or “Flat Nose”||Agnes Rose (this one may be a stretch)|
|Ben Kilpatrick or “Tall Texan”||Texas|
|William Carver or “News”||News|
Outlawed is supposed to be a RETELLING of history, not a true story. However, in order for a fictional story to be successful and entertaining it must be believable, so it makes sense that North would use inspiration from true events and people like Butch Cassidy.
In an interview with Vox reporter, Constance Grady, Anna North discussed the history within her novel. She claimed it was the most labor-intensive part of the book for she read books about outlaws, indigenous history in the Americas, the hole in the wall gang, and black westerners.
“…even though I knew it’s not going to be the real history — and that was important to me, that this doesn’t actually exist in our world — I still felt like I needed to know a lot about the real history to know what would be possible, or how I would want to deviate from it”Anna North
North’s meticulous research made her story believable and strong.
North captured the essence of an ol’ western and the stereotypes within the time period making Outlawed a believable retelling. She took factual events like the masculine dominated Hole in the Wall gang and turned it on its head to be a woman and non-binary dominated safe haven.
If you are a fan of ol’ westerns, I would give Outlawed a chance to give you a breath of fresh air.
What is the Genre of the Book?
This question is being thrown around in many book club, classroom, and Goodreads discussions. When reading Outlawed the genre is ambiguous. It is clear though that it is not pure historical fiction and it is NOT a dystopian novel.
Of course, Anna North’s Outlawed is not an ideal society and one many would consider a dystopia; however, it is NOT dystopian literature. Why?
Every literary genre carries its own elements which make it a specific genre. Some genre’s elements can overlap, but each genre has its own particular list. In order for a book to be considered dystopian literature it must include these 5 elements:
- Government Control
- Environmental Destruction
- Technological Control
- Loss of Individualism
Outlawed does not contain all five of these elements. Does Anna North loosely set up a society that could be viewed as a dystopia?
Absolutely, because determining what is a dystopia or utopia is opinion based. Nevertheless, there is no plot that specifically follows environmental destruction, survival, technological control, loss of individualism, or government control.
There are small seeds of government control like the Sheriffs who enforce the hanging of suspected witches but that enforcement comes from societal pressure not a government entity. We see this through Ada’s relationship with her hometown’s Sheriff. The plot of Outlawed is not about government control, rather societal judgement.
For a book to be deemed a certain genre, it must carry overwhelming evidence of many or all elements within the suspected genre. Outlawed does not show enough parts of a traditional dystopian novel to be labeled as one.
I also will not call North’s novel historical fiction because her intention was to create a story and world that never existed. Historical fiction is literature based around true events. North took true events and retold them by turning them inside out and putting them upside down with a grain of truth in each plot line.
So, I will settle with labeling Outlawed as a historical retelling. The ambiguity of Outlawed‘s genre plays into its already unique story.
Conversations about Gender and race in outlawed
Gender and Women’s Fertility
One of the main historical themes Anna North altered was a Western woman’s role within sexuality. In American history, a woman’s virginity is her gendered identity; whereas in Outlawed a woman’s identity is based around her fertility.
If a woman can have many children, she is blessed by God, is heavenly, and well respected. On the other hand, if a woman cannot conceive or is not conceiving with her husband, she is a suspected witch.
Anna North did a great job of exploring this concept throughout her novel. Unfortunately, I don’t think her ending was developed enough to give this unique topic space.
I don’t want to give any spoilers but I feel North could have had a more satisfying ending for Ada to sum up her personal search for understanding that gender and identity is more than fertility.
Race discussions are throughout the novel and each one, although short, packs a punch and leaves the reader thinking. One scene that sticks out to me very clearly is one where News, a black Hole in the Wall outlaw, confronts Ada about her white saviorism.
White saviorism is a topic that is easily avoidable or danced around. When I first reflected on the scene, I as a writer and reader felt North could have been more nuanced. However, upon further reflection, I realized it’s very good how abrupt and straightforward the scene is for the reader.
Because white saviorism is a topic many white people choose to ignore and avoid, it is necessary for North to be abrupt and obvious so the reader has no choice but to sit and feel News and Ada’s conversation.
Let me know if you think Anna North’s tackling of these subjects was successful in the comments below!
Questions to think about during or after reading
- Who in our present society does Sheriff Branch represent?
- Do you think Anna North’s rewrite of history is believable?
- Point out parallels between Anna North’s alternate history and our present society.
- Was the ending what you expected? Were you looking for more?
- Did you like the Kid’s character arc?
- Do you think a sequel would be beneficial to add to the story or is this book better on its own?
Will I read it again?
This is a book that I believe deserves a lot of respect and time to unpack. I am excited to read it again maybe a year or five down the road. I will hopefully have more knowledge and life experiences to apply to my analysis and appreciation of North’s work.
Although I thought the ending was a tad disappointing, I believe Outlawed is a fantastic read and worth your time.
It is a thinker and will give you a great escape from reality, so if you are currently looking for a read that will steal your complete attention, Outlawed by Anna North should be your next pick.
Let me know what you think!
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