Friday, August 08, 2008

On The Outlander
a novel by Gil Adamson
Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers, 2007
329 p., $25.95

It may be that point-of-view becomes the novelist's most important technical decision. That, and timing -- that is, at what point in fictional time to start the actual narrative. Gil Adamson starts her narrative, set in 1903, with a description of men and dogs tracking a girl who scrambles "through ditchwater and bulrushes, desperate to erase her scent." The men are described as "wordless, exhausted from running with the dogs." Briefly, the girl lets herself stop running: "In the moonlight, her beautiful face was hollow as a mask, eyes like holes above the smooth cheeks." About her, we learn this much: "Nineteen years old and already a widow. Mary Boulton. Widowed by her own hand."

So starts a story of pursuit: men and dogs chasing a nineteen year old girl-widow-killer. Readers do not learn the story of the death of her husband for a very long time. What we do experience is the shifting point-of-view of the pursued (Mary Boulton) and the pursuing (the brothers of her late husband). Of these perspectives, Mary's is the one we live in more. She has no money, has no idea where she is going except away from what she has done, nor can she anticipate who she might meet or how they might react to her. But in these early pages the novel consistently refers to her as "the widow." And most of the time, we see her situation as desperate flight.

Along the way, readers learn a few things about her past, usually in an aside. For example, we learn she "had never known a mother." We learn that she's more likely a city person than a rural one, for "there had always been something about her that disturbed animals." But mostly the novel keeps us in the immediacy of her flight, the minute-by-minute desperation of what to do next and how to stay ahead of those she knows pursue her. Even in this desperation, we learn that "she must not think of babies. She must not think at all." Clearly, something bad has happened: she flees not just the men who pursue her; she is running from memory she cannot or will not face.

For a very long time now, The West (including the Canadian West, for this is a Canadian book by a Canadian writer) has been a place to flee into, a place to disappear, and disappearing is precisely Mary Boulton's aim. She never articulates this, she simply continues west, away from law and order and towards the nonjudgmental and nonjudicial landscape without people. And as Gil Adamson clearly knows, therein lies a paradox. The farther Mary goes, the more vulnerable and alone she becomes. In fact, without being befriended providentially, twice, by complete strangers who know the countryside and how to survive in it, this novel's story would have reached a speedier conclusion -- one with Mary dying of exposure and malnutrition.

The Outlander works so compellingly because Gil Adamson's imagination puts readers into Mary Boulton's situation, mind and body. When she becomes soaked to the skin, shivering and delirious, Adamson makes readers experience precisely these conditions. It becomes impossible not to want this main character to survive. That, and we also know that her survival will be the only way we might ever learn what happened to initiate Mary's terrified effort to get away. The Outlander must sooner or later come to grips with that initiating action, and when it does, readers must decide their own judgment of Mary Boulton. That this becomes a difficult, complex decision attests to the depth of character Adamson gives Mary Boulton. And when, near the end of this book, Mary finally looks at herself in a mirror, readers gain a deeper understanding of how difficult it may be for us to know ourselves.

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