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Gabaldon's "Outlander"

July 8, 2014 - Jodelle Greiner
There’s a lot of buzz about the STARZ series “Outlander,” even though it doesn’t start until Aug. 9. That’s because the show is based on the novels by Diana Gabaldon, and the first one, “Outlander” (originally released as “Cross Stitch” in England) was published in 1991 and has quite a following.

The novels are tough to classify. “Outlander” is romance, but unlike any romance novel I’ve ever read. There’s a bit of fantasy. Definitely historical fiction wrapped around non-fiction, as many historical people are part of the storyline. Gabaldon herself has written that “the only way I’ve ever found of describing this book to anyone is to begin telling them the story.”

Claire Randall is on holiday in Scotland with her husband Frank Randall in 1946. She was a combat nurse for Britain during World War II and he served in the army. Married eight years, the trip is meant to help them get to know each other again after being separated for six years during the war and it’s an opportunity to start their family. It’s also an opportunity for Frank to trace more information on one of his ancestors, Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall, who fought the Scots at Culloden during the attempt to put Bonnie Prince Charlie on the Scottish throne in the mid 1740s.

Although Claire loves Frank, his genealogy search bores her. An amateur botanist, Claire is out exploring for plants one day near the stone circle of Craigh na Dun, a place shrouded in mystery. Inspecting the stones, Claire finds one with a wide cleft and leans in for a closer look, touching it.

Chaos breaks out in all directions. Before Claire can get her bearings, she encounters a squad of English Dragoons, led by a man who bears a striking physical resemblance to Frank, and introduces himself as Jonathan Randall. Nothing like Frank in personality, Randall attacks Claire. She is rescued by a band of wild Scotsmen.

Somewhere in the middle of it all, Claire realizes that the men in kilts are not historic re-enactors — she’s gone back in time to 1743, when relations between the Scots and English were decidedly unfriendly, if not downright hostile.

With her English accent, the Scots aren’t too likely to trust her — to them she is a “Sassenach” or outlander and a suspected English spy. Unable to trust either the English or the Scots, all Claire wants is to get back to Craigh na Dun and Frank, but her attempts to escape are impeded at every turn. When Captain Randall orders the Scots to turn Claire over because she’s an English subject, the Scots, who have reason to know how cruel Randall is, come up with an idea to thwart him by turning Claire into a Scotswoman — by marrying her off to Jamie Fraser.

Horrified at marrying another man while she’s married to Frank, Claire really has no choice if she wants to escape the sadistic clutches of Jack Randall. She has no idea how marriage to Jamie Fraser will torture her heart. Jamie has faced his share of trouble and betrayal, but retains a sense of honor and humor. Soon, Claire realizes she loves both Frank and Jamie in different ways.

When the opportunity comes, will she go back to the 20th Century to the husband she misses or stay in the 18th Century with the husband who has won her heart?

Whew! If you think I’ve given it all away, that’s only about the first 200 pages of the 600-plus page novel.

Claire and Jamie’s story is the center of “Outlander” and I’ve never read one like it. Gabaldon tells a complex, detailed epic filled with political intrigue where one false step or word can result in death and where Claire’s divided heart and her relationship with Jamie is the core of the book.

Claire and Jamie come alive in Gabaldon’s deft hands, complete with nuances and foibles. Gabaldon breaks nearly every romance novel stereotype with this couple. Yes, Claire is pretty, but she’s also opinionated, stubborn, sticks her foot in her mouth, is not religious, and is very conflicted over her love for two husbands. Yes, Jamie is a big, strong, good-looking man, but he is also tender, fierce, funny, a devout Catholic, and vulnerable. It’s the way Gabaldon writes these two, especially their witty conversations, that make you fall in love with the characters.

Gabaldon juggles a lot of balls — like I said, “Outlander” isn’t simply one thing or another, it’s more like a seven or eight course dinner served with several kinds of wine for good measure. Done by a less talented writer, this would probably come out a confused mish-mash, but like a master painter, Gabaldon adds more layers here, brighter colors there, darker ones there, until you feel you can walk into the painting.

Although I’ve really enjoyed reading Gabaldon’s work — I’ve finished the second book “Dragonfly in Amber” and just started the third “Voyager” — I have to issue a warning: these books are not for everyone. The old superstitions still hold sway and Claire is accused of being a witch because she uses plants to cure illnesses when most people think it’s demons or fairies that make people ill. Most people in the 18th Century had tough lives and death from many different means usually came early. The fact that Claire and Jamie have sex isn’t left in doubt, but those scenes are centered on the interaction and conversation between the two.

Sometimes Gabaldon will make you laugh out loud, other times, she will shock you. There’s not much off limits, whether it’s religion, politics or sex, and at this time in history, all three are intrinsically linked. The Holy Bible says there’s nothing new under the sun, and debauchery and sadomasochism are no exception.

With unerring attention to plot and detail, Gabaldon expertly fits everything into the storyline. She’s a master at setting the reader up to wonder, “How is she going to get them out of that?!” She gets you where she wants you, but even though you know what’s coming, the journey doesn’t take the path you expect. And that is her signature as a writer.

Gabaldon is different, unexpected and original. If you’re in the mood for that, pick up “Outlander.”


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