Outlawed by Anna North was published in 2021, and has been on recommended lists all over library shelves and internet sites. I didn't know what I was getting into, only that it was a western being recommended by a librarian (which was enough to sell me on it). But it's exactly the book I didn't know I needed.
The story starts with Ada, a young woman in an alternate-history 1890s America that has been fractured and scattered by tragedy. The background is unspooled slowly and in drips, revealing a world that's both strange and familiar. Death and disease have shrunk the population and forced parts of humanity to become obsessed with procreation and fertility. It's easy to see parallels to much of the rhetoric that is shared today surrounding infertility.
The biggest element that it captures is the fear and confusion. Medical science has grown by leaps and bounds, and still today we don't always have answers about why one person can get pregnant while another can't.
It's an avid metaphor in general, for the power that fear of the unknown holds in some communities. And it's a topic that Outlawed grapples with in many ways: whether a person flees from the unknown, or attacks it, or tries to uncover it. What do our responses say about us? And which one is correct?
The cast of characters embodies this struggle. They're a band of outlaws and outcasts, excluded from polite society and traditional gender roles. They are the unknown, in some respects, attacked and banished, while in other respects they have done the fleeing from the unknown.
Anna North's story is at times gentle, other times brutal. It challenges ideas about the Wild West while uncovering a strange alternate version. It is more queer and more competent than any western I've read in recent memory.
Is it a Weird Western, in the strictest sense? I'm not the authority, but I'm leaning toward 'no'. It's unusual, certainly, and it bucks some of the tropes of the more traditional western, but I think it probably aligns more with a historical fiction than any sort of Weird Western, even by the broadest definition.
Is it still worth reading? Absolutely. It's beautiful and touching, a story of longing and belonging that shows a Wild West that could have existed, beneath the story we usually hear. I heartily recommend you make Outlawed your next western read.