Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Roundtable: Outlander #1-2 by Diana Gabaldon

Time travel into the land of mist and myth

Outlander is very popular here at the DFL; many staff members have read the books and/or watched the recent TV show, and so it is a frequent topic of discussion. I watched the show when it first came out – and loved it – so I've finally decided to dive in to the books themselves. I'll be offering my thoughts on each book in the series as I read them through the rest of this year. Today, I’ll start with the first two books in the series (which to me were really two halves of a self-contained story), with the additional perspectives of three of my lovely colleagues. 

Outlander (1991) and Dragonfly in Amber (1992) together tell the story of the tail end of the Scottish uprising of the mid-1700s, which ended with the Battle of Culloden, from the perspective of Claire – a WWII nurse who accidentally travels back in time from 1945 to 1743 Scotland. The books touch upon many fascinating subjects, both reality – including daily life, health care, and politics in the 18th century (and even to a certain extent, mid-20th century) – and fantasy/sci fi, such as: can events in the past ever be changed, or is history always set in stone? And intertwined throughout is romance, adventure, and intrigue.

I had heard so much about the Outlander series and always felt I should read them, but I’ll confess that the thickness of the books made me stay clear of them for a long time. A couple of summers ago, I caved and started reading the first one. The TV show was coming out and I wanted the visions in my head before Hollywood provided them for me. Before I knew it, the end of August arrived and I had read through the whole series. I was hooked and ready to fly to Scotland.

Call them romance, historical fiction, fantasy, or adventure – the series crosses many genres.  They left me wanting to do a little research on the Battle of Culloden and Scottish history. They left me trying to learn a few words in Gaelic. They left me wondering what I did with my old kilt and instead of thinking ‘Don’t worry’ I found myself thinking ‘Dinna fash.’

They also left me wondering if – given the chance – would I go back in time?  Luckily I don’t have to decide. I can take my 21st century knowledge and live in a Scottish castle. I can learn about medicinal herbs and sleep on a bed of pine needles, but I can do it with electricity, and modern medicine . . . and coffee. . . hot coffee in the morning. I can travel through pages (instead of stones) into the world of romance, loyalty, and honor created by Diana Gabaldon.

Give them a try. If you're also intimidated by the thickness of the books, try the audio. There is nothing like a commute to work while listening to someone profess their love with a Scottish brogue.

I really wanted to like Outlander. It has story elements that I enjoy: a smart and strong female lead, historical fiction, and some magic. But the story just never drew me in and although I am glad that I read this, I didn’t actually like it. It even left me confused, and wondering what about this massively popular story I am not getting.

One common theme that rarely holds my interest is what I think of as the “Too Many Boyfriends” scenario, which is when lots of male characters are lusting after the female protagonist, and a love triangle is part of the main story. I tend to find that dynamic annoying because it seems to be a lazy way for an author to show the importance of a female protagonist. Claire has two husbands, both love her eternally and completely, and she’s also constantly being ogled, commented upon, and pawed by both friendly and antagonistic male characters.

This was also a more violent story than I was expecting, and that bothered me. As someone who really enjoys the Song of Ice and Fire series, I can handle violence in novels. But the violence here was often justified in a way that made me uncomfortable. Jamie beats Claire at one point and she comes to forgive him because he explains that he did it out of love for her. Jamie speaks about the beatings he received from his father as being a sign of love. Claire and Jamie’s whole relationship in general seems to hinge on the fact the he is horribly hurt over and over, and she heals him. Throw in some added baby exposure and bare-handed wolf killing, and it was all too much for me.

There was also an element of gay panic to this story. There is an ancillary gay character who is predatory with a predilection for adolescent men, but who is also written off as a buffoon and an object of ridicule for the other characters. And then, of course, there is Captain Randall (I won’t say too much – spoilers!). Also, the fact that Captain Randall looks exactly like Claire’s other husband, Frank, made me wonder what sort of strange symbolism that was supposed to represent.

So, what am I missing? Why do people love this series? Is it better as a TV show?

I enjoyed Outlander far more than I expected to. Romance novels aren’t really my thing, but the historical element drew me to the series (as well as the urging of several coworkers) and I am so glad that I read them.

At first, I was displeased by the “woman loves two men and has to choose” story arc but Gabaldon made Claire come alive for me and instead of a torrid love story, I saw a woman doing the best she could under extraordinary circumstances. I’m going to try to avoid spoilers here but I really loved how Gabaldon took common themes like abduction, rape, and rescue and flipped them. This damsel spent as much time rescuing as being rescued and all characters carried the scars of their encounters. Nothing was easily won or easily forgotten, which contributed to the depths of the characters and my attachment to them. Obviously the time comes when Claire must choose between her two men and I have to admit that I cheered at her choice. In all I was pulled into this book and taken for a ride that I thoroughly enjoyed.

It’s worth noting that Lindsey, Suzanne, and I started reading #1 together after the first season of the show aired. Lindsey and Suzanne – neither of whom watched the show before reading the books – both mentioned that they had a bit of a hard time getting into the story at the beginning (one of whom ended up really getting into the series, the other didn’t – I’ll let you guess which is which). But I watched the show first, and had no trouble getting into the story at all. While I don’t usually recommend watching a show or movie before reading the book, in this case I can’t help but wonder if the show helped me get into the book because it was so great. I was impressed once I did read the book how closely the show stuck to the original story. In fact, there were quite a few details in which I thought the show even improved the book, specifically where the it could 'show' something that the book only 'told'.

Overall, I thought that the characters were wonderfully complex, the setting incredibly interesting, the writing was great, and I really appreciated that by the end of #2, almost all the different threads brought up in #1 were resolved, so that none of the specific story lines felt like they dragged out too much, but rather ended in a very satisfactory manner (which of course left an opening for many other adventures in the rest of the series).

While I too was occasionally bothered by what might have been a little bit too much sexual violence for the sake of sexual violence, I did feel that Gabaldon was trying to make a point about what the reality was like for women in the 18th century (and most of history before and even after that). For most of written history (at least in terms of Western / European history), women have been considered the property of their fathers and husbands, and sadly I think it was more common than not for men to take advantage of this. I thought the books did a good job of expressing how anathema that would be to a modern woman, and really helped immerse my mind in the attitudes of the era.

At the end, I was very satisfied with the way that this story (in books #1-2) addressed the fascinating question of whether or not we can change the past, in both large and small ways. While it makes me sad that time travel may always remain science fiction, perhaps it’s for the best, and at least we can always travel to any time period through books, shows, and movies. And, as Karen pointed out, can do so from the comforts of our own heated, clean living rooms with a nice cup of tea and some cookies!

Keep reading! Beth

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