On its premise it’s an exciting idea: a classic American tale with the script flipped starring a woman as the leading man ... There’s always a test involved when a stunt of this kind is pulled: will it hold up on its face as a compelling story? ... The results in North’s tale are varied and breathe new life into the Western format. Fans of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are in for a stellar ride where gender roles, sexuality, agency, and self discovery come together, making North’s story as experimental and novel as it is classic ... North renders a dazzling landscape, punctuated by a musicality that lulls you like a folk song ... there are moments of thrilling insight ... North’s rendering of race is less sure-footed ... Race, class, and gender are all on Ada’s mind, but the power structures where those things intersect occasionally get lost. This time the dry earth was hard fought by women, yes, and women trying to rewrite history on their terms. But the land was still claimed by Whiteness ... In the end, though, the novel is breathtaking in its recalibration of gender roles. The challenge is to imagine a world where categories, expectations, and conventions of American life collapse enough to birth real change.
Talking to friends this past week, I've described Anna North's new novel, Outlawed, as The Handmaid's Tale meets Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ... Outlawed, in this quick summary, can sound gimmicky, but there's much more going on in this smart adventure tale than just a sly upending of the traditional Western, rooted in macho individualism and violence. For all the ways North ingeniously stretches the limits of the genre, she's also clearly a fan ... Most of all, though, it's the affecting character of Ada who's the steady draw here ... For Ada and the other 'outlaws' of this spirited novel, the frontiers of gender and sexuality beckon to be explored.
...stirs up the western with a provocative blend of alt-history and feminist consciousness. The result is a thrilling tale eerily familiar but utterly transformed ... There’s nothing formulaic or dogmatic about North’s approach, but she has cleverly repurposed the worn elements of 19th-century mythology to explore the position of childless women. The shame and sorrow these young women suffer in the 1890s is not so different from what women trying to get pregnant — or end a pregnancy — endure in our own supposedly enlightened era ... In North’s galloping prose, it’s a fantastically cinematic adventure that turns the sexual politics of the Old West inside out. But if this is a legendary story, it’s a legend with its own idiosyncratic and highly satisfying ending.
3.5/4 stars ... 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 ... 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 ... 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 ... a thrilling tale.
This is a lovely slow draw in the world of the Old West, a story about the people who don’t belong, portraying a realistic, close-minded world that only accepts women willing to fit into a specific mold ... It’s exciting to read a Western tale that features such a range of women and queer characters ... North’s new book is perfect for fans of Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted (2020).
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 ... 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.
... those first pages, hold much promise. The first-person narration has the understated swagger of a tall tale, and the straightforward prose has just enough old-timey flourishes to make the setting believable, never so much as to be distracting or hokey ... Such gender deconstructions are a nice match for a revisionist western and for our moment ... Neither motivation, I’m afraid, is very compellingly rendered on the page ... In our current publishing culture, we are eager to dismiss works with potentially offensive content as 'problematic.' There is nothing problematic here, and that may be the trouble ... Ada’s progressive, intersectional consciousness is unimpeachable by contemporary standards, but is that analytically useful, or is it simply about signaling that Ada is on the right side of justice? By anachronistically applying our own HR rules on the past, even a speculative version of the past, the book fails to satisfyingly grapple with the real problems of the historical West, undercutting the grave evil done to marginalized people there ... at the level of narrative, however perfectly the themes of Outlawed speak to our zeitgeist, the story lacks the friction of real risk taking. As the novel wanders on, the problems come to seem like strawmen, the threats conjured merely as an excuse for a climactic set-piece shootout. The whole package has the whiff of an algorithm, as though Netflix slipped the author saleable buzzwords, and it veritably pitches itself to the movies ... does deliver in cinematic images...But lovely images can be static and do not a novel make. Nor do philosophical asides, although North has some sharp one-liners what straight-up genre promises, Outlawed fails to deliver. Thrillers, westerns, and adventure stories work by astonishment in scene-by-scene storytelling. By contrast, North’s scenes plod; they seem to have only one possible direction; they break strangely for backfill, as though the author is anxious to shore up her worldbuilding. She seems either snobbish or shy of action—she will set up an exciting event, only to cram its beats into a hurried paragraph, as though to avoid slumming for an effect as common as suspense. She routinely veers off into backstory at what should be the most exciting moments, or reminds us of the stakes of a situation after the fact. However vivid the descriptions and intelligent the ideas, the genrecrossing doesn’t work if those genre characteristics aren’t tended to—if the threat in a thriller isn’t believable, if the familiar tale doesn’t bring along its source material’s uncanny, primordial evil ... Books like Outlawed are indeed necessary, setting out as they do to take apart the old, harmful myths and offer something novel and visionary in their place.
North’s knockout latest (after The Life and Death of Sophie Stark) chronicles the travails of a midwife’s daughter who joins a group of female and nonbinary outlaws ... As the novel barrels toward a surprise ending, it’s further strengthened by Ada’s voice and reflections, which preserve a sense of immediacy ... The characters’ struggles for gender nonconformity and LGBTQ rights are tenderly and beautifully conveyed. This feminist western parable is impossible to put down.
Calling it The Handmaid’s Tale crossed with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid goes some way to describe the novel’s memorable world, but it is also wholly its own. It earns its place in the growing canon of fiction that subverts the Western genre by giving voice to the true complexity of gender and sexual expression ... A genre- (and gender-) bending take on the classic Western.