Recently I finished reading Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon. If I had to find one word to describe the whole story I would choose “intriguing”, although rather “sexist”, “frustrating”, and “infuriating” at times. Maybe “spellbinding”. I might also choose “addicting” as I found it difficult to pull away from and deal with reality in my own life. I found the writing very engaging and easy to follow, yet not simple. The writer’s style of describing both the 1940’s world and 1740’s world made it all really come to life, without boring the reader with cumbersome facts. The tapestry of characters, places, relationships, and events that develops in your mind as you progress through the pages is as good as a museum painting or film. If you are anything like I was as I read it, you will travel a beautiful, yet rocky, steep, frustrating, and even terrifying, at times, trail of places, history, and emotion, and feel your heart and mind giving way to the journey. The characters will definitely do things you won’t agree with as a reader, and at times you will feel angry at them, but you might finish the book feeling part of your own heart and soul enveloped in the lives, hearts, and souls of the characters and the beautiful Scottish landscape.
Before you read any further, please be SPOLER ALERTED! If you have not read the story yet and would like to with a completely unknowing mind, you may want to stop reading. If you have read the story or don’t mind a sneak peek, proceed.
Outlander is an epic tale of a young British woman from the 1940’s thrown back 200 years in time to Jacobite era Scotland. She immediately meets the antagonist of the story, Black Jack Randall, whom, due to his strong resemblance, she at first mistakes for her husband, Frank. Quickly she discovers the British captain is far from anything like his descendent, her husband, and finds herself in danger. Rescued, and kidnapped, by a group of rough, but fairly kind hearted, Scottish clansmen, she meets Jamie Fraser, a handsome, young kilted soldier, who needs medical attention, which Claire administers using skills learned as a WWII combat nurse. After spending some time at the clan’s haven, Castle Leoch, Claire, who is suspected by some as being a spy for the British, develops a friendship with young Jamie, but secretly searches and plans for a way back to Frank and to her modern world. This proves difficult as she is watched closely by members of the Castle and not allowed to leave, in essence, she becomes a prisoner. She also begins to see the reality of a time period where human, and especially women’s, rights, are much different than in her own.
As the story progresses, Claire, who is now viewed by the clan, in a way, as their property and still suspected to be a spy for the British, is forced into an arranged marriage to Jamie, in order to prevent her capture and imminent torture by Black Jack. Claire, being still married to Frank in the modern world and maintaining hope of returning to him, is reluctant to marry, but sees no other option. Marriage to Jamie turns out to be quite blissful, at least in the beginning. She enjoys his company and feels comforted by his protection.
Yes, all is well on the newlywed front, until around Chapter 22, when Jamie decides to dole out a rather harsh (in my opinion) punishment to Claire for not following his orders. Man, do I have some thoughts on that whole scene, some of which can be read here: https://roweenarickman.wordpress.com/2015/08/04/a-letter-to-claire/ I won’t explain too much about the details of that portion of the story. This is a part where the history (if history is the reason that scene is in the book, I’m not fully convinced its presence in the plot has much to do with history) is shocking, reminding us of the lack of women’s rights (human’s rights in general), outside of what the men in their lives granted them, during that time period. Honestly, as a reader, I did not feel this scene was necessary to the plotline, and its presence in the story, for whatever reasons, nearly ruined the book for me.
Disturbing, aggravating, and sexist as that whole scene was, as well as some of his and Claire’s behavior shortly after, I began to forgive Jamie (not as quickly as Claire did) as the story progressed. Their happiness seemed to surpass their strife, at least for a while. And certainly by the end of the book, knowing all that he endured to free her from Randall, he had earned some redemption and forgiveness from me.
Strife the two lovers did experience, in multitude. Claire’s capture, physical injuries, and near execution for suspected witchcraft, resulting in having to flee the sanctuary of Castle Leoch. Jamie’s near heartbreak as he returns her selflessly to the stones where she fell through time, his capture by the Watch near Lallybroch, Claire’s driven and desperate searching and plotting to free him, his near death at the hands of Black Jack, her near death leaving the prison to find help, and his long, physically and emotionally painful rehabilitation. Jamie’s recounting to Claire of his final torture by the hands of the cruelly sadistic Black Jack made my heart truly ache for him. I challenge any reader to get through it without shedding, or at least coming close to, shedding some tears. At times the reader is left wondering if the two shall ever find peace. The last few pages of the novel leave us knowing the two have reached a point of happiness and some peace, although their future, knowing what Claire knows about it, will certainly not be without its difficulties.
Gabaldon intertwined some historical accuracy with a consuming, difficult to put down, life and love story. Through Claire’s eyes and experiences, we learn a great deal of Scottish clan history, the Jacobite uprising, British rule (and brutality), superstition, medical history, and even a few things about herbal and plant remedies. I found some elements missing, one being that some of the problems don’t seem to have full resolution or vindication. I feel that Claire dismisses serious things too easily at times, and even comes across as devoid of proper emotion for certain situations. Perhaps absolution comes later in the lengthy book series, Outlander is, after all, only the first book in an eight part series. I also found the sexist, violent, and rape related themes to be quite disturbing. There were also a couple portions where the plot just didn’t seem to work. I found myself questioning things a great deal.
Now that I’ve given you a serious overview of the plot, on a personal and somewhat humorous note, let me say I would not last long in 1700’s Scotland. I would have thrown myself off the nearest precipice (lots available in Scotland) or found some 18th century poison to quietly end my misery. Here are a few reasons:
- I can’t stand the smell of raw sewage, especially near my living area.
- I don’t really like herring.
- The whole concept of men being responsible for and in charge of women makes me throw up in my mouth a little.
- A system of justice that involves so much physical abuse and punishment is just straight up weird to me.
- I can’t stand leeches.
- Sex in the 1700’s. How often people bathed back then…think about it.
- Toilet paper. I really don’t think I could live without it.
I could probably go on and on with the list, mentioning my loss of technological conveniences as well, but I’ll admit sometimes I enjoy getting away from it all and living simply and free from distractions. Like a long weekend camping, but after a few days I’m ready to get back to my modern life.
Which brings me to Claire. I admire her spirit, strength, and tenacity to survive in this throwback world, a world where women had little or no rights, outside what was granted to them through the men in their lives. I don’t agree with the way she lets Jamie treat her sometimes, even outside of Chapter 22. He can be a brut at intimate times, acting in a way that could be described as rape. Claire seems to be ok with his behavior though, ultimately giving in, so I guess it’s her business. (Although I don’t agree with the message that behavior sends to readers.) Like I said I would have offed myself long before the ending of Claire’s story, if I were in her shoes. Or somehow made an escape to the stones. Somehow. Or perhaps I could have found strength and love in the partnership with Jamie, the way she did. It would have been hard for me to get over the whole Chapter 22 incident with him though, honestly.
Outlander is also not without its points of humor. Jamie himself has a wonderful sense of humor, one of the things Claire ends up really enjoying and loving about him. The story brings us several humorous situations as well. Claire and Jamie’s initial consummation of their marriage, although definitely romantic, was certainly giggle worthy as Jamie, a bit naïve in this department, makes a post coital confession to Claire. Jamie’s conversation in the stable with his young cousin Hamish about the details of marriage and its benefits, some of Claire’s “girl talk” conversations with Geillis, her acquaintance during her time at Leoch, Jamie and his sister Jenny’s childhood stories and sibling banter, an incident with some silly underwear and a waterwheel, and Claire’s own quick wit, are a few of the elements that help keep the story light hearted and entertaining through the serious undertones.
Would I recommend Outlander to readers? Well, here is where I feel conflicted. If I do recommend it I must do so with words of caution. If you choose to read it, be prepared for some controversy, and be prepared for some sex scenes, some of which are rather detailed. Be prepared for the mention, and some detailed description of, rape. Be prepared for violence, including some domestic violence. Also be prepared to be frustrated and even angry at times. Remember, it is set in a time when women were second class citizens. If you are sensitive to, or simply not interested in reading about any of these things, it will probably not be a book you will enjoy. In fact, there may be parts that will traumatize you. I certainly had my moments of frustration and discomfort as I read it, but like I mentioned, the author’s writing style keeps many readers turning the pages.
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