A New Old West in “Outlawed” – Chicago Review of Books

“In the year of our Lord 1894, I became an outlaw,” begins the scrappy young heroine of Outlawed, an epic new Western by Anna North. This postapocalyptic, alternate history reimagines the Wild West’s notorious Hole-in-the-Wall Gang as a posse of female and nonbinary robbers forced into a life of crime.

Ada is a seventeen-year-old married girl in a town in the Dakota territory. Being the daughter of a gifted midwife, she is adept at assisting with births and treating “female troubles.”

In a world where the United States of America has been wiped out by a “Great Flu” that leaves its survivors barren, Ada has grown up within a religion that reads something like Bible fan fiction. She was taught that God made a covenant with Mary of Texarkana that if the survivors of the Great Flu and their descendants are fruitful and multiply, they will be spared more illness. Ada’s mother didn’t put much stock in dogma, or in the conventional belief that only females could be barren, but she knew that girls who fail to produce a healthy baby after more than six months of marriage are suspected of witchcraft. Ada is still not pregnant, and tongues are beginning to wag.

When Ada isn’t safe from the gallows at home anymore, her mother sends her to a convent. But when convent life doesn’t suit Ada either, she ends up at the hideout of a legendary outlaw called the Kid.

The charismatic leader of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, the Kid is nonbinary, and a prophet of sorts. The other outlaws bear such names as Texas, News, and Elzy, echoing the lore of the historical Hole-in-the-Wall Gang made famous by Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and Jesse James.

Ada’s knowledge of medicinal herbs and frontier medicine, like setting broken bones and healing wounds, gets her a probationary place in the gang as “Doc.” But when a mistake on her debut as a robber gets the gang’s best sharpshooter shot, the Kid is the only member of her new family to show Ada any kindness.

Throughout the novel, North describes the frontier landscape so elegantly you can almost hear Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid swelling and retreating in the background:

The shadows stretched and slid as the day wore on; with each quarter hour, a new section of rock blazed flame red, and another plunged into ochre darkness. In the evening, the setting sun made the stone glow a living pink, as though blood coursed through it, even as the warmth and light drained away from the valley floor.

As Ada learns how to rob highways and steal cattle, she trains to appear and behave like a cisgender, heterosexual, binary man. This is for her safety and to pull off heists, but the Kid also founded the gang to be a safe place for “barren women” and gender nonconforming people, all linked by their expulsion from a world hellbent on reducing them to human breeding stock. Ada learns how to change her body language to evade detection as a woman. Although she herself is heterosexual, cisgender, and binary, the gang’s expertise in creating the illusion of any gender illustrates the performative nature of gender presentation to begin with. Their being forced to live outside mainstream society and steal simply to survive allegorizes how fundamentally compromising it is for queer individuals to have their gender identities and sexuality outlawed.

In the novel, the outlaws are hardly in a position to intellectualize gender identity, sexual orientation, or gender roles, occupied as they are by various robberies and evading the law. But the quiet moments between Ada and the other outcasts are ripe for further exploration of the diversity of the queer characters’ experiences, particularly what it’s like for the Kid to be a nonbinary leader in such a harshly patriarchal era. Perhaps potential fodder for a television adaption? 

The characters in Outlawed are also diverse ethnically. The Kid, for one, is dark-skinned, and racism rears its head in the segregated towns they rob, but the novel goes furthest to avoid being limited by “white feminism” blinders through News, who is biracial, black and white. News, being unable to conceive, was taken town to town by a doctor who preached to crowds of white spectators that miscegenation causes infertility. She was his prop for a cautionary tale he designed to convince mayors to annul and outlaw mixed-race marriages.

Within this new old West, Ada’s search for a purpose pushes her far away from the life she expected to live. Although our teen heroine begins her great adventure already a wife expected to produce a child, it is only later, among the most wanted robbers on the American frontier that she ultimately comes of age.

By Anna North
Bloomsbury Publishing
Published on January 5, 2021

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