OutlanderOutlander by Diana Gabaldon is a fascinating epic tale which is, at its heart, an exploration of 1700s Scotland from a woman's perspective. The twist here is that the heroine, Claire, is actually a World War II nurse from 1945. She's married, so she knows about men, and she's seen the horrors of war. She is mature, responsible, and intelligent.
Normally I'm not one for time-travel styles of novels, but here it's a quick, minor plot device which allows us to see this 18th century world through eyes we can relate to. This gets a bit philosophical, but hang in there with me. So often we read medieval or renaissance novels with heroines who do things *we* think are reasonable - but to an actual woman of the middle ages it would NOT be reasonable. It's hard for us as modern readers to completely fathom just how differently women of older times thought about their position in society, their place in a family, and so on. Their view on many things would be completely foreign to us. So most authors, by necessity, compromise. They give their medieval character a more modern sensibility. Otherwise we readers wouldn't be able to necessarily relate to the heroines or enjoy the story. We would be baffled by their choices and actions.
So Gabaldon found a way around that common issue. She made her heroine a MODERN thinking woman, one we understand the mindset of. And then she used a circle of stones to get that woman into the past. Now we get what we normally want - a heroine in an interesting time period, helping us learn about that time period, while also retaining a set of values and principles we agree with.
Gabaldon did an amazing amount of research for this story. You can hear it in her details about herbs, in the explanations of religions and folklore, in the details about clothing, and much more. You get a fascinating look into how the 1700s were for people of all levels.
Yes, the book is long - 850 pages. It's fair to say you need to be a reader who enjoys long books. I do, so I didn't mind the length. Again, much of it is filled with rich detail and background, so if you're a quick-action type of person, this might not be a match for you.
The book is also sexually explicit and goes into detail about battle wounds and torture. Some people mind these sorts of things, while others (considering the high popularity of movies like "Saw") enjoy it. Be aware that it's in here and if those aren't your types of interests, you might want to think twice.
There's absolutely a lot of credit to give to Gabaldon for creating such a dense, lush, realistic world full of accurate details.
That being said, no book is perfect, and I wanted to mention a few items I had issues with.
At times the phrasing creates misleading mental images. For example she'll describe an adult towing along a "boy" - which makes the reader think tall-adult, short-boy, but then later you learn the boy is a teenage guy who is taller than the adult. There are typos like "mud-died leaves". She'll state that all sadists get sexual pleasure from hurting others, when "sadist" can mean they just like it (I.e. not necessarily sexually). Her characters denigrate a 16 year old girl as in essence never having any possibility of growing up emotionally. I'd hate to think that any of us would have our entire life judged just by how we happened to act at age 16. Gabaldon has a woman struggle through a nasty breech birth and then go gallivanting around on a wild pursuit only a short while later.
Gabaldon states the Scots didn't know the F word in the 1700s, but in fact a 1400s era Scottish poet, William Dunbar, used the word in his poem and it was well known by the 1700s. It's a common misconception that women in "old times" were married off at age 13, but for many time periods that was far from true. Despite her claims that a woman would be a "spinster" at age 22, my research shows the *average* age of marriage in the 1700s was 26 for women and 28 for men. Just as in modern times, if the economy was rough people waited until they built up a nest egg and were stable before starting a family. For every couple that raced off and got married early, there was another who waited until the house was built. Here's a quote about the marriage practice in colonial US at the same time period - "First marriages usually took place between young adults in their mid-twenties and late twenties and were preceded by discussions and agreements between the parents of the couple."
She talks about a spot on a sword as being the juncture of haft and tang - but the haft is the handle and the tang is the metal part of the sword which goes inside the handle. I think she meant haft and blade? Why not just say the crossguard?
In any case, when I see accuracy issues in areas I happen to know about, it makes me a bit less secure in reading the other parts of the book.
Still, those are less important to me than the two key issues I have with Outlander.
First, there is the issue of Claire's relationships with men. When we begin the story, Claire has been faithfully married to husband Frank for eight years. She is furious with him when he suggests she might have had a fling while she was overseas doing her nursing duties. She loves her husband. Then she zaps back to 1700s Scotland. There's a confusing tumble of characters and it seems almost that each one will be her new connection, so as a reader it's hard to know who to "connect with". Finally the mess unwinds a bit and we see we're supposed to be rooting for James. OK, fair enough. But from Claire's point of view, she doesn't know she's in a romance novel ;). She just knows that she's a wedded wife who loves her husband and who has been dragged away from him. And yet, within a day or two, she seems to FORGET ALL ABOUT HIM. Sure there's the occasional mention of "oh at some point I'll get back to that stone circle thing" - and she does at least try to do so for a while. But there's NO sense of any thought of her husband. In fact it's page 461 before we even get her thinking about what Frank must be going through. Yes, she'd been away from him during the war, but even so, they had been reforging their bonds together - and hopefully during the war she did think about him regularly and worry about him. I know women married to men in combat zones and they worry constantly.
And yet I read through all of that with only a mild sense of being irked, until I reached a specific part of the story. Claire has disobeyed James. So in return he said he was going to beat her soundly with his belt. She insisted she was an adult, that she understood her actions and would not make the mistake again. He said, sorry, the only way I believe you can learn anything is by being physically harmed. And he did. Afterwards she says she understands why he did it - and he admits he enjoyed it! I realize some readers feel hitting a woman to punish her is fine. Some readers will equivocate and say "well I don't exactly like it but this is a historical setting". However, this is a HERO we're discussing. I realize some men regularly raped women back then (and heck now) and I would never want that behavior in my hero. Some men verbally abused women back then (and now) and again, not a hero. I absolutely do not want a hero character who enjoys beating a woman.
We have battered women's shelters full of women who have escaped relationships with men who enjoy beating a woman. Those were only the women who were able to get away. Millions more women are still with those men because they feel they can't leave. A scary statistic - even of those who get away to a shelter, 85% of those women end up going back to their abuser.
I feel strongly that romance novels should be promoting heroes who RESPECT their partners and who DO NOT ENJOY BEATING THEM. Whatever excuse we might come up with for why some men might have done this, to me those men should never be presented as the hero of a story.
So this character flaw drags down a book which has many other immensely well done attributes to 3/5. The "I enjoy beating my wife" scene was absolutely not necessary. There were so many other ways to have handled the scene which would not have created this situation.
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