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. That's a glib tagline, but there's some justification for it.
Outlawed opens in an alternative America of 1894 that was torn asunder by a flu epidemic some 60 years earlier. West of the Mississippi, centralized government has been replaced by a patchwork of Independent Towns. One of the few things this fragmented America agrees on is that women are put on Earth to bear children. That's it. And, because too much knowledge, especially medical knowledge of women's bodies, is frowned upon, "barren" women are regarded as freaks of nature, witches; they're ostracized, imprisoned and sometimes put to death.
That status quo is pretty much okay with the heroine of Outlawed, a 17-year-old woman named Ada. She's content to be married off to a man chosen for her and settles in to await her first pregnancy—which fails to happen. In less than a year, Ada is expelled from her husband's house and, after a few twists of fate, joins up with the infamous Hole in the Wall Gang.
In North's novel, that real-life band of 19th-century gunslingers is reimagined as a group of outlaws who identify as female or non-binary. They're led by a messianic figure called "The Kid." In finding a home with the gang, Ada comes to realize that sexual desire can roam as wide and free as deer and buffalo on the range.