BookBrowse Reviews Outlawed by Anna North

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by Anna North

Outlawed by Anna North X
Outlawed by Anna North
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jan 2021, 272 pages

    Feb 2022, 272 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Will Heath
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About this Book



In Outlawed, Anna North reimagines the Western epic as a feminist tale of freedom, new family and new beginnings.

A common theme of the countless Western books and movies of the last century has been a romanticization of heroism that flourishes with masculine courage and strength. Outlawed flips the script on this theme entirely, providing us with a fresh take on outlaw cowboy mythology that switches out the straight white male narrative for, well, almost everything else.

Written by LA-born, Brooklyn-based author Anna North, Outlawed is set in 1894 and tells the story of Ada, a young woman expected to follow a specific path by marrying young and, God willing, birthing many healthy children. When Ada struggles to become pregnant, her mother, a midwife to whom she is apprenticed, tells her daughter that she may not be the cause of her own barren state. She advises Ada to seek out another partner, pointing her in the direction of an older male friend who shows her that sexual gratification isn't only for men. However, Ada is still unable to conceive a child.

Ostracized by her husband's family and called a witch when women in her care start having complications, Ada is soon sent to a convent, and from there she escapes to join the Hole in the Wall Gang, a group about which hushed whispers abound in nearby communities. The group's name is taken from a real-life Wild West gang, but North's fictional gang is her own creation, comprised of mostly women who have been cast out, often for being barren, and headed by the Kid: a powerful, kind, enigmatic and charming leader.

While the novel's first act follows Ada's troubled youth and the lessons taught by her savvy and educated mother, its second and third parts build her a place within the gang. She survives and thrives, steals and makes tragic mistakes. She establishes herself as the group's resident doctor. She learns about the other women, many of whom have chosen names for themselves, like Texas and News. The book's narrative drip-feeds information about Ada's new family; the reader is always learning, always falling deeper into the world of the Hole in the Wall Gang.

North's style of description incorporates a sparse and minimalistic approach to environment and mood, which plays to the novel's strengths. Her writing is more focused on actions and dialogue than scene-setting, a choice that works exceptionally well, allowing for the plot and pacing to be maintained. The novel is relatively short, and packs a punch; it feels like a story on wheels, barreling forth as any good Western should.

North's smartest move in both her writing and plotting is being inclusive. Outlawed is not so much a female narrative as it is a non-straight-white-male narrative. The Kid is depicted as non-binary: "Not he, not she […] The Kid is just the Kid." There is also an examination of superstitions surrounding interracial couples within the book's local culture and communities, with one fast-spreading belief being that racial mixing leads to infertility or imperfect and genetically weak children. The book's exploration of race as a topic isn't nearly as well fleshed-out as its exploration of gender, but it's still good to see it considered.

Outlawed manages not only to flip the script on the masculine hero outlaw archetype, but to do so with biting wit and real purpose. North considers the role of a woman, especially in the world of the Wild West: Her place at the heart of dangerous superstitions, devised by men for maintaining a status quo of which they are afraid to lose control. Her role as a machine for making men happy and producing offspring. The Hole in the Wall Gang represents freedom from that machine life and its dangers, and provides new, more exciting dangers of its own.

A Western epic in every sense, staying true to the tropes and trappings of the cowboy narrative while rewriting it almost entirely, Outlawed is a sharp and cutting feminist tale, very much of our time while also having some fun in the lawless world of 1894.

Reviewed by Will Heath

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in January 2021, and has been updated for the February 2022 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  Women of the Wild West


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