It’s 2006, and the sixth novel of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, has just recently won the 2006 Quill Award in the Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror category. For some of you, it may be 2007 or beyond, but like Gabaldon does in this series, I’m going to allow that time may have a more elastic quality than we have hitherto thought. In fact, like Outlander heroine Claire Randall, I’m going to step through my ring of magical stones here, and. . . . Ah! Here I am in 1991, with the first book of Gabaldon’s series, Outlander, newly published under the title Cross Stitch.
In 1945, Claire has just completed four years as a WWII Royal Army nurse. She and her husband Frank Randall have been reunited, but both are having difficulty readjusting to civilian life and to the awkward dance of compromise and affection and boredom that delineates their marriage. In an effort to rekindle their romance they have rented a room at a quaint bed-and-breakfast in the Scottish Highlands, and it’s Claire’s not-so-secret wish that they will be able to conceive a child.
The first two chapters of Outlander are stressful to read at times; something seems missing from the lives of Frank and Claire, and not just the baby Claire hopes for. So when they stumble across the otherwise perfectly ordinary housewives of the village wrapped in bedsheet togas and performing druidic rituals around a smaller version of Stonehenge, it seems like a joke, or an amusing diversion. But when Claire returns to the stone circle the following day, she’s sucked into a magical force surrounding the rocks, and spit back out in the year 1743.
Almost immediately, the opening chapters make perfect sense. Claire was missing something; a lot of somethings. Important somethings like excitement and fulfillment and true love. No wonder I thought Frank Randall was such a petulant, self-absorbed ass; Gabaldon was making it easy for me, the reader, to have no regrets leaving him behind.
Claire’s got excitement galore in 1743, and not always of the welcome variety. She gets shot at, and mauled by men who find her 1940s attire questionable. She’s kidnapped by a band of renegades and pressed into service as their physician. She’s arrested as an anti-British spy by her twentieth-century husband’s own ancestor and tortured under his prurient gaze. She’s accused of witchcraft, and watches helplessly as her friend Geillis Duncan — the only person who might have real reason to believe Claire’s story of traveling from the future — is convicted of the same charge and sentenced to death.
Even little things prove more difficult than Claire might have imagined; toilet paper doesn’t exist in her new world, and hot baths are only a memory, and throughout everything, the ability to accept what she sees as the more barbaric practices of the time — like leaving sickly babies to die of exposure on windswept hillsides — eludes her.
Gabaldon’s attention to detail creates a lush world of daily life and daily tasks, and she engages in intense descriptive passages of minutiae which in hands of lesser skill would seem mundane, but in Outlander become fascinating and palpable. One of my favorite chapters, ‘Davie Beaton’s Closet’, details Claire’s findings in the pharmacy of Castle Leoch. I love to know that PURLES OVIS — a medicinal ingredient commonly prescribed by the late castle physician — are balls of sheep dung. Claire promptly throws these away, along with jars of dried snails and POWDER of EGYPTIANE MUMMIE. I’m a lover of fictional lists, so details, details, details bring a world to life for me. Most importantly, and by far most vividly, details bring to life the character of Jamie Fraser.
Mmmm . . . Jamie MacKenzie Fraser of Lallybroch. Claire is coerced into marriage with the young laird-on-the-lam Jamie. She’s only briefly distressed by the fact that she’s already married, though she isn’t sure whether her marriage to Frank Randall is void because he won’t exist for some hundred and sixty years, or whether she’s a widow because the man she was married to is no longer alive. Not yet alive? Might never live? Even Gabaldon refuses to clarify, and Claire’s desire to protect the man she once loved (will love?) in the future causes her to make decisions in 1743 that put both herself and Jamie at the mercy of Frank’s ancestor, Captain Jonathan Randall of His Majesty’s Eighth Dragoons. He and Jamie have a terrible history, and Jamie’s got the scars on his back to prove it.
He’s one sexy beast, that Jamie Fraser; the sexiest Scots warrior virgin ever to grace the pages of romantic fiction in a kilt. His combined virtues/faults of fierceness, honesty, recklessness, vulnerability and beauty make him irresistible to so many: our heroine Claire, the Highland vixen Laoghaire, the sadistic Captain Jonathan Randall, poor tortured Lord John Grey (moving forward through the Outlander series), and to, of course, myself.
But there, I’ve come full circle to my own time and place. It’s a fine one, I’ll grant you; I like toilet paper and hot running water. Good thing Gabaldon created the world of Outlander for me to visit, with its enduring romance and rousing action and political intrigue and oh, may I mention again the romance? It’s no surprise her books transcend genre and defy categorization. A Breath of Snow and Ashes beat out both George R. R. Martin (A Feast for Crows is a fabulous book in a fabulous series) and Stephen King (beloved by millions and purported maker of such) for the 2006 Quill. Strange bedfellows, Gabaldon and Martin and King, but not so strange when one reads all three; I’m sure they coexist on more than one set of bookshelves. Even Claire Randall/Fraser wears two wedding rings; Frank’s gold band on her left hand and Jamie’s silver on her right.
And speaking of bedfellows, Jamie Fraser can wrap me in his plaid any time. Thank you, Ms. Gabaldon, thank you.