The Outlander by Gil Adamson
The novel The Outlander by Gil Adamson is another of the books nominated for the 2009 Canada Reads competition. It is the third of the five that I have read, and it is certainly a good contender.
The novel begins with a vision of 19-year-old Mary Boulton running from the men and the dogs “her stiff funeral skirt made of bedspread and curtain, her hair wild and falling in dark ropes about her face.” We learn that Mary “the Widow” has killed her husband “a widow by her own hand” and is being pursued by her two brothers-in-law – picture those two cough drop men from your childhood. A horrifying sight. It is 1903 and Mary at first successfully escapes the men – steals a horse and makes her way into the Crows Nest Pass and the forests of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
This is the stuff of myth. The widow meets the Ridgerunner, William Moreland, who has lived in these mountains for many years, using the forest rangers huts occasionally and on the run himself. They find in each other an acceptance and passion they have not known before. Liberating for the Widow and terrifying for the Ridgerunner. On the run, they separate, and the Widow finds herself rescued from certain death in the freezing cold, Grizzly-bear infested wilderness. Her saviour is a Native man dressed in skins who takes her to his home where his wife cares for the Widow until she can be taken to the closest town. There she is returned to the life of a white woman in a rough and tumble western town. She is taken in by an eccentric, lonely man “the Reverend” who is building a church in the godforsaken wilderness where he raves at his parishioners. She also meets, and befriends, the local shopkeeper, a very small man, Charles McEchern “merchant, entertainer,” local drug peddler or apothecary as he calls himself.
McEchern takes a liking to the Widow, who is more often called Mary now. There is an affinity between the two, as McEchern sees them as “the dwarf and the woman, lucky miscreants, outlanders, errors that should not exist but lived on anyway.”
McEchern’s shop sits above a tiny mining town named Frank. Living in Edmonton, when I was a child, my family often camped in the Rocky Mountains and I remember visiting Frank and the story of the Frank slide, long before the current interpretation centre was built. This new centre, which I did visit a couple of years ago, tells the story of the town and its people and the awful day the Turtle Mountain collapsed and covered the town and its people. The reader knows that this disaster is about to happen but the characters in the novel, of course, do not.
Gil Adamson is the descendant of pioneers in Western Canada; her grandfather was a telegraph operator who ran a coal mine in Edmonton. She is a lovely writer, her use of the language and her way with words make this novel a pleasure to read. This is the wild wild west, complete with Indians in fancy dress, stolen horses and stampedes, wild animals and the freezing cold of Canadian winters, the bugs in spring and an assortment of characters that keep the reader enthralled.
I found it such a fast-paced story, and such a fantasy land that it was not until near the end of the novel that I really began to care for the well-being of Mary Boulton and wish her happiness. It would completely spoil this book for you if I were to reveal the ending before you have begun, so I simply recommend that you read it. In these days of doom and gloom this imaginative make-believe tale is a great escape.