Review: Anna North's thrilling 'Outlawed' rewrites the myth of the Western

Alicia Lutes, Special to USA TODAY
·3 min read

The myth of the Western is one largely forged by men, telling stories of other men on frontierland adventures, brimming with machismo. But theirs aren’t the only stories worth telling, nor should they get to have all the fun that comes with romanticized tales of the Old West.

In her latest novel, “Outlawed” (Bloomsbury, 272 pp., ★★★½ out of four), Anna North presents a far different perspective on the genre, one forged by women, Black and nonbinary people looking for the freedom, space and right to exist in a world that largely doesn’t want them.

Joining a gang of outlaws in a mid-1890s American West recovering from a devastating flu outbreak is Ada, an 18-year-old woman, married for a year and without a child to show for it. This, despite her mother’s standing as the town midwife, creates many problems for her and her family. Because barren women are considered cursed, witches, or worse (and typically hanged because of it), Ada is forced to take a fugitive’s path, undertaking a series of adventures, including a stint at a convent that ultimately brings her to the mysterious – and infamous – Hole in the Wall Gang and its enigmatic leader, known simply as The Kid. And this is where things get really fun and interesting.

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“Outlawed,” by Anna North.
“Outlawed,” by Anna North.

Out in the open Dakota country, North’s tale of gender and sexual fluidity takes flight. Tackling the plight of Texas, News, Lo, Agnes Rose, Cassie and The Kid takes this dystopian revisionist history into subversive places for both genres at play here, and North’s richly tended language makes for an expansive world. But never once does the story feel weighed down by its subject matter: Ideas about feminism, American racism and sexual/gender identity are seamlessly and purposefully woven into the tale without preachiness or constant trauma. North excels in keeping the story at a steady pace while also giving its characters room to breathe and grow. The vividness with which she writes this world is one that’s captivating and hard to put down.

It does feel like a missed opportunity that, for all “Outlawed” does address, it does not take into consideration the indigenous people whose lands on which these bandits (and frontier towns) exist. Considering the history of Two-Spirit/third gender acceptance in many Native communities, it feels like a bit more inclusivity would’ve only added to the novel’s already lush tapestry; another reminder that queer and genderfluid people have always existed, it’s white colonialism that’s oppressed the expression of one’s full self. Some of its secondary and tertiary characters would have benefitted from a bit more thorough fleshing out, too, but does not take away from one’s overall enjoyment of North’s well-paced novel.

Author Anna North.
Author Anna North.

“Outlawed” is a thrilling tale fit for screen adaptation, with a cast of characters many a modern audience would love to see ride horses, rob banks, and just generally be the sort of mythologized Western badasses the men alone often get to be. It’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” meets “True Grit” in the best sense, but also something wholly its own.

Petticoats, pistols and subversion of the Old West archetypes: What’s not to like?

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Review: Anna North's 'Outlawed' rewrites the myth of the Western