Meandrous trail of a murderess
A widow is being tracked by men with dogs, pursued through ditches and woods and rough fields. She is young and scared and not entirely lucid. Her escape is impeded by her heavy mourning clothes. The men after her are relentless and terrifying, two massive and menacing redheaded twins, vigilantly chasing the woman who murdered their brother.
Thus opens The Outlander, one of those riveting books that is impossible to put down. I forced myself to stretch it over two days because I wanted to savor it and now I am left with that bittersweet feeling of having finished a really good read.
Gil Adamson's first novel is filled with fascinating characters and beautiful language. Set in the Canadian Rockies in 1903, the tale of escape and pursuit is vividly written and (remarkably) fun. It seems a dark tale: a mistreated, troubled young woman murders her cruel husband following the death of their baby. Mary Boulton, the widow, has a tenuous grip on reality -- her hallucinations often scare her more than her grim life. Driven by fear and pursued by the vengeful twins, the widow flees across the plains and into the mountains, ill-dressed and unequipped for wilderness survival. The harshness of her brutal survival story is softened immensely by Adamson's evocative descriptions of the natural world (a worried mother squirrel stomps about "like a miniature, tawny bear", a lonely horse gazes in the house windows "like a governess peering into a playhouse.")
The people that the widow encounters in this sparsely-populated country are dazzling: an elderly rescuer and her interesting hired help, a gentle fellow fugitive known as The Ridgerunner, and a strangely pugilistic minister. There is also a boot-legging Italian giant, an opium-peddling dwarf, and a cast of other curious characters. Even the most minor characters are given distinctive, rich personalities -- they are a refreshing (though sometimes scary) lot to encounter.
Interesting historical information heightened my feeling of immersion. The difficulties of hunting, cooking, bathing, and laundering in primitive conditions are palpably described. There are intense portrayals of the strictures of turn-of-the century gender roles and the loneliness of frontier life. Which means this book has it all: an interesting plot, a powerful sense of time and place, delicious characters and best of all, Adamson's brilliant wordsmithery.