by Gil Adamson
Reviewed by Ron Charles
Washington Post Book World
Gil Adamson's first novel bolts off the opening page: Men with hounds are chasing a young woman through the woods at night. Nineteen-year-old Mary Boulton has murdered her husband and now, still wearing a black mourning dress made from curtains, she's running from her brothers-in-law, massive, red-headed twins with rifles across their backs.
Welcome to The Outlander, an absorbing adventure from a Canadian poet and short story writer who knows how to keep us enthralled. Of course, the Girl Being Chased is one of the most enduring figures of chivalric and chauvinistic literature, a staple of television dramas and horror films (the dark street, those panicked backward glances, that plaintive cry: "Oh, why did I wear these heels?!"). But Gil is short for Gillian, and her strange and complicated heroine has nothing in common with Hollywood's worn-out damsels in distress.
For almost 400 pages, we follow "the widow's peculiar trajectory into the wild. The route like a skittering mouse, light-footed and almost aimless" through the mountains of Alberta, Canada, in 1903. She has no idea where she is or how long she's been running. "Trained for another life," a lady's existence of "sonatas and etudes; the art of a good menu," she discovers only through trial and error which plants are edible or how sick carrion can make her. "The widow felt the burden of her own existence," Adamson writes, "the endless labour of it."
Yet despite its momentum and the relentless fear of capture, this is a strikingly pensive novel, anchored by the stark beauty of its setting and the harsh wisdom of its narrator. Adamson almost always refers to Mary simply as "the widow," and she parcels out tiny bits of information about her with tantalizing deliberation. Throughout much of the book, Mary remains a mysterious, almost abstract figure in black.
We learn about her mostly during her mental lapses, when the horrors of the past briefly break through her exhaustion and hunger: "booming in her ears, yes, but also voices, strange and distorted....She was like a woman forever woken from a nightmare, afraid to go back to sleep lest it pick up where it left off." In those dreaded visions, we catch haunting images of Mary's privileged upbringing in the home of a severely depressed ex-minister, her hopeful marriage to a dashing gambler and the ordeal that eventually drove her to murder him -- "the seeds of her despair and madness."
But these are just brief interruptions in a story that remains largely in the present tense, as Mary races against starvation, exposure and those unstoppable twins, "their identical faces vigilant and sober [with] the keen, predatory look of hyenas." The only corny element in this otherwise deadly serious novel, Mary's enormous, implacable brothers-in-law seem to have stomped out of a Cormac McCarthy novel or maybe one of the Terminator movies.
The story catches its breath now and then when Mary runs into people willing to offer her shelter, including a kindly old woman who treats her almost as a guest, an Indian man who saves her from stumbling into battle, and a minister who challenges his parishioners to fistfights every Sunday morning.
The most significant of Mary's good Samaritans is William Moreland, who, despite his allegorical last name, was a real person, a legendary woodsman who roamed all over this part of the world. He annoyed U.S. forest rangers for years by living off supplies stolen from their cabins. Adamson works actual newspaper reports into the novel to portray him as a man of almost magical stealth, "disappearing into the woods like a djinn," so elusive that spotting him would be "like seeing a real leprechaun." Nicknamed the Ridgerunner, Moreland is a fugitive, like Mary, and nothing about her strange manner or ghostly visions strikes him as alarming, but he has an entirely different attitude about the forest. "Here was a man who suffered no loneliness," Adamson writes, "who spent his days as he wished, who believed he could so deeply commune with nature that deer would eat from his hand and allow him to scratch their heads."
He comes upon Mary's emaciated, unconscious body and nurses her back to health. Slowly, with exacting politeness, the widow and the Ridgerunner become friends. They're both hesitant, as easily startled as wild animals, but attraction wins out. Moreland describes their woodland romance with exquisite charm and sweetness, and it seems all the more passionate for that. A lifetime of emotional deprivation has made Mary thirsty for the simple kindness Moreland offers, but living alone for so long has not prepared him for the intensity of his feelings for her. "Thirteen years alone in the woods, no change except the seasons wagging," Adamson writes. "And then there she was on the ground, demented, half-starved. Change came roaring in. Her warm body in his tent like a salacious dream, her beautiful voice, that unnerving gaze." His impulse to flee, to run from all human contact, "from life itself," complicates both their lives in tragic ways.
Meanwhile, as those monstrous red-headed twins close in, there are pages here you can't read slowly enough to catch every word. Adamson is as captivating with descriptions of vast mountain ranges as she is with the smaller calamities, like the drowning of a yearling "frightened into madness." The spectacular conclusion mingles Mary's fate with a thunderous real-life disaster that took place in Alberta during the early 20th century.
Several of the scenes in this novel began as poems Adamson published in a collection called Ashland in 2003, and the sharp intensity of The Outlander suggests its origins in verse. The end of a gripping narrative poem titled "Mary" describes men still dreaming of a woman who murdered her husband: "They wake yelping like dogs,/striking out terrified in the dark/defending against the quick, descending fury."
The heroine of this novel earns a very different legacy, but her story will unsettle your dreams just the same.
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.