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Combining the searing, timely observations of novels like THE HANDMAID’S TALE and THE BOOK OF V. with the grit and high-stakes adventurism of classic Westerns, journalist and author Anna North’s OUTLAWED is an instantly compelling speculative tale of feminism, tragedy and hope.

The year is 1894. Following a pandemic-like flu that destroyed the United States, the power of female fertility is at the heart of the new world order and belief system. But rather than upholding women and praising their sacrifices, this intensely patriarchal belief system centers on the Baby Jesus and casts out women who are barren or prefer the romantic company of other women as witches. Our main character, Ada, is 17 years old when she is married and, having accompanied her midwife mother on many births, is extremely excited to begin her life as a wife and mother. Night after night she lays with her husband, but when no baby comes, she begins to fear the very real possibility that she could be thrown out of his home, blamed for the stillbirths of other women around her, or even killed.

" once a pitch-perfect Western...a parable of the fight for women’s rights, and a deeply felt saga about the search for hope after a lifetime of pain.... OUTLAWED is a masterpiece of feminist theory, Western drama and emotional resonance."

With the help of her mother, a no-nonsense woman who understands that birth is both a miracle and a mystery, Ada tries nearly everything she can think of to get pregnant, including sleeping with another man who is known to be particularly fertile. But as she discovers that sex can involve pleasure, pain and tragedy, her secret is exposed, and she soon finds herself on the run from her beloved town. Despite the fact that she has helped several local women with births, infections and the regulation of their menstrual cycles, she has been branded a witch, and nothing short of an immaculate conception can save her from the fear and hatred of her townsfolk.

As Ada’s life is upended, the town is rocked by stories and legends of the Kid and the Hole in the Wall Gang, a notorious criminal group known for evading capture at every turn. In her flight from home, Ada comes to join these outlaws --- and learns that there is much more to the Kid’s story than meets the eye. Neither he nor she, the Kid exists only as “the Kid” and is determined to create a safe haven for outcast women: the barren, the mixed-race, the queer and the nonbinary. But decades of trauma and loneliness have made their mark on the Kid too, and as Ada learns the ways of the gang, the Kid’s moods and beliefs --- already mercurial and grandiose --- take on a menacing edge, putting their safe haven in danger.

Along with members Cassie, News, Elzy, Texas, Lo and Agnes Rose --- each with their own traumatic past --- Ada fights to maintain the careful balance the gang has achieved through years of robberies and luck. But when the Kid’s dreams for the group reach new highs, the Kid embarks on a treacherous plan that is sure to either get them all killed or turn them into the very same preachers, lawmakers and deputies they despise. Through it all, Ada wonders if the life of an outlaw is truly the right path for her --- the one that will allow her to help the greatest amount of women like her and her gang --- or if she is meant to lead the fight for female fertility studies and rights, following in the footsteps of her mother.

OUTLAWED is at once a pitch-perfect Western --- complete with gunslinging, horseback riding and blazing shootouts --- a parable of the fight for women’s rights, and a deeply felt saga about the search for hope after a lifetime of pain. North writes a breathtaking cast of fully realized characters whose struggles for gender nonconformity and queer love will hit any reader at his or her core. Headstrong, no-nonsense Ada and her search for knowledge read like a perfect feminist hero, but North is careful to explore her flaws as well, and the ways that she has not yet met her full potential, adding a layer of excitement to the already page-turning book. Even the supporting characters are given full weight, and some --- like News or fellow robber Lark --- will tug at your heartstrings just as much as Ada or the Kid.

By using an alternate version of the lawless Old West as a backdrop for the themes of gender exploration and fertility, North highlights her characters’ desperate fight for survival and turns the Western genre on its head, subverting everything about it. Themes such as racism and sexual expression, which so rarely see their due in classic Westerns, are given the spotlight they deserve, allowing North to add new complexities to the Old West and give voice to a whole new world of characters and readers. But even these laudatory traits could not stand on their own if she was not such a captivating storyteller, whose prose borders on poetic and whose observations are as carefully worded as they are breathtaking.

Set in an America that we are fortunate not to know --- and yet recognize all too easily --- OUTLAWED is a masterpiece of feminist theory, Western drama and emotional resonance.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on January 8, 2021

by Anna North