I received an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of Outlawed by Anna North. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.
In an alternate world in which a flu decimates—and in fact destroys—America as we know it, fertility is valued above everything. In this world, in the year 1894, seventeen-year-old Ada gets married to a boy she loves. But after a year passes, and she still is not pregnant, she knows she is in danger—girls like her are often hanged as witches. So she flees and finds herself joining a group of bandits called the Hole in the Wall Gang. This is a haven for women who have been discarded by society, and Ada hopes to make this a home, at least for now. But when the leader of the gang, the Kid, concocts a risky heist, Ada has to decide whether or not to commit to her life as an outlaw.
This feminist western was a lot of fun! I found the alternate history pretty fascinating—this is still definitely the Wild West, but with a slightly dystopian twist, where women are valued only if they can have healthy children.
Ada, the daughter of a midwife, is a sympathetic protagonist. She’s bright and witty and cool-headed a lot of the time, but you feel for her when she faces obstacles, particularly when those obstacles so often come in the form of the harsh standards set forth by this overly strict, heteronormative, baby-obsessed society. She knows she cannot help being barren, yet cannot explain to her fellows why she is this way—the scientific research just doesn’t exist yet.
The mistakes she makes throughout the novel, as she tries to adjust to her life as a bandit, are frustrating but also so believable. She feels like a real person, and the reader cannot help but put themselves in her shoes—I have no doubt I’d make some of the same errors in judgement that she does if I were in her position (which I hope never to be). She’s overall quite a well-written character.
The other characters, from the Kid and the other bandits, to Ada’s mother and Lark, are also well-written. I wish we could have had a bit more time to get to know them all. This book is fast-paced, which is fine and makes for an engaging read, but I wish it could have slowed down at times. I could have read way more scenes with the Kid than there were. However, that is not to say that I didn’t still become attached to the characters, because I did!
The themes this book presents are wonderful. The exploration of women’s bodily autonomy, as well as how various minorities have been discriminated against or marginalized, is intelligently presented. I loved seeing this side of the Wild West—a West where gay people, biracial people, non-binary people, and women who might have otherwise been trapped in a terrible life are able to take charge and live on their own terms. In such a short book (not even 300 pages), North presents so many concepts that merit discussion and make you think. This book is worth more than one read.
In the end, I really liked Anna North’s Outlawed. It’s a bold, raucous adventure though a history that feels brilliantly different, but also eerily similar to our own world. The characters are strong, the plot is breakneck, and the themes empowering. Sometimes, it could benefit from a slower pace, and I wanted more from some of the side characters, but all in all, this is a great book. If you like dystopias or westerns, or just genre fiction with a feminist twist, check this out!
Overall rating: 8.7/10
Outlawed was published on January 5th, 2021!
Content warning: There are a couple of brief discussions of topics such as depression and suicidal ideation, so keep that in mind if those could affect you strongly.