Friday, March 6, 2009

A Woman on the Run

I just finished reading a novel that I must tell someone about. It's one I've been meaning to read for a long time. You know how it is -- the rapidly growing stack of "to be reads" that you look at longingly from time to time as you look up from the pages of the book you're currently reading (or from the computer as you're blogging). But I finally grabbed it and said "it's time." And I am sure glad I did!

The book is The Outlander, a debut novel by Gil (short for Gillian) Adamson, a Toronto-based writer who has previously written two collections of poetry and a book of linked short stories. It opens with The Widow -- Mary Boulton -- fleeing through the woods at night with bloodhounds and lawmen in pursuit. The bloodhounds and lawmen eventually give up, but her husband's two brothers -- massive readheads -- push on, committed to avenging the murder of their brother, shot by the widow herself.

Here's how the book opens: "It was night, and the dogs came through the trees, unleashed and howling. They burst from the cover of the woods and their shadows swam across a moonlit field. For a moment, it was as if her scent had torn like a cobweb and blown on the wind, shreds of it here and there, useless. The dogs faltered and broke apart, yearning. Walking now, stiff-legged, they ploughed the grass with their heavy snouts." By the end of the first page, your heart is pumping and you must keep reading to learn what happens to this woman.

I don't typically read what I would call "westerns," but as I was reading this book I just kept exclaiming, "Wow. Wow, I love this book. Wow, am I loving this." (Yes, I say "wow" a lot.) Then, about a quarter of the way in, the book took a turn, a somewhat unbelievable turn, and I thought, "oh, if this is how it's going to be I'm not going to like this." But, thankfully, the moment passed quickly and it got back to "Wow" again.

The book combines wonderfully lean prose, vivid characterizations and settings, authentic historical details, adventure and suspense, and a strong female character running for her life. It builds momentum with an accumulation of details of her backstory doled out piecemeal to the reader. One reviewer said, "It's the kind of book Cormac McCarthy might write should he make a woman his main character and Canada his setting." Other reviewers have compared the book to Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. The book takes place primarily in Alberta, Canada -- although that's not abundantly clear -- in 1903.

The blurbs on the book jacket are from such great writers as Jim Harrison, Michael Ondaatje, and Ann Patchet -- the latter saying "The Outlander deserves to be read twice, first for the plot and the complex characters, which makes this a page-turner of the highest order, and then a second time, slowly, to savor the marvel of Gil Adamson's work." I couldn't agree more, Ann!

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