Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Fiction – audiobook. Read by Davina Porter. Recorded Books, 2006. Originally published 1991. 32 hours, 30 minutes. Library copy.

In 1945 following the end of World War II, former nurse Claire Beauchamp Randall and her husband, Frank Randall, travel to Inverness, Scotland for a second honeymoon before Frank begins his tenure as a professor of history. Frank spends most of his time with a local vicar by the name of Wakefield tracing his lineage back to the nefarious Captain Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall while Claire roams the countryside learning about the local fauna and their medicinal properties from a Mr. Crook.

The couple arises early one morning to visit the circle of standing stones at Craigh na Dun on one of the old Celtic feast days when local druids still observe a ritual dance welcoming the morning sun. Before the druids arrived, Claire had spotted an unfamiliar plant and later returns with plans to find the plant again and gather a sampling for Mr. Crook to identify. As she investigates the stones around Craigh na Dun for the plant, Claire begins to hear a terrible screaming noise from inside one of the stones and reaches out with both hands to touch the stone.

This simple action lands her in the middle of a skirmish between Scottish highlanders from Clan Mackenzie and British redcoats. Trying to convince herself she has inadvertently stumbled upon the movie set of a period drama, Claire begins to run away from the real bullets and towards the town of Inverness right into the arms of Captain Randall, himself. Randall, who bears a striking resemblance to her husband, immediately begins to abuse Claire deciding her dress and appearance mean she must be a whore and, therefore, free for his taking. Despite her best efforts, Claire is only freed from his clutches when a member of the Clan Mackenzie knocks Randall out cold.

The Mackenzies have no plans of letting Claire go, however. Especially not after she resets the dislocated shoulder of a man they call Jamie returning full function and motion of the arm to him. Hauled off to Castle Leoch with the promise she can petition the laird for her release, Claire is informed that she finds herself not on a movie set but in 1743 Scotland and that Column Mackenzie has no intension of letting the healer many think is an English spy go. Desperate to return to Craigh na Dun and to prove she is not a sassenach (Gaelic for outlander) spy, Claire tries to adapt to life in the eighteenth century eventually finding herself married to Jamie, who is in hiding himself, in order to remain out of Randall’s sadistic clutches.

This summary only comprises about an eighth of the book and a quarter of the television series, but to try to summarize the whole thing would mean giving away major plot points beyond the wedding of Claire and Jamie. These two characters transcend the characterizations expected of a book often classified as a romance novel that features of Scottish Highlander – Claire is not the docile damsel in distress and Jamie is not (always) the savior in a tartan kilt.

And there are so many secondary characters I’ve yet to mention that are equally interesting and complex: Dougal Mackenzie, the war chieftain for Clan Mackenzie who serves as his crippled brother’s legs; Geillis Duncan, a married woman in the village who provides herbs to the castle and to women with unwanted pregnancies who is suspected of being a witch; Jenny Fraser, the sister of Jamie whose rape at the hands of Randall at Lallybroch leads her brother to becoming a wanted man; Murtagh Fraser, Jamie’s godfather who is suspicious of Claire; and Laoghaire MacKenzie, a sixteen year old who fancies herself in love with Jamie.

The eBook edition I used to follow the audiobook along with included an interview at the end where Galabdon explains how she never visited Scotland while writing Outlander and relied solely on her research. One of my favorite aspects of this book were all the details about how people lived in 1743, which speaks to the amount of research Gabaldon must have done, and the way the reader can connect with Claire’s astonishment and confusion because both are outsiders from another time period.

But I was particularly enamored with her descriptions of the scenery – the sights, the smells – and could easily picture the novel in my head. I had worried this would not continue once I reached the halfway point of the novel where non-dramatized events would begin, yet I was still able to craft a vivid picture in my head.

The amount of rape in this book was off-putting (more so than George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series), and I’ve been cautioning people who ask me about the series to consider this before picking up the book (or the television series). There are multiple attempts to rape Claire and Jamie as well as the recounting of Jenny’s experience with Randall from both her and Jamie’s perspectives.

How much of this was necessary, I cannot say. Historically, the British army was despicably violent towards the Scots and rape is often used in war to debase and dehumanize the oppressed population. But I had to restrict my listening of the audiobook to times when I wasn’t at work because it was far too uncomfortable to listen to, and it will be interesting from a filmography point of view how they are able to show such scenes (and other violent moments modern day audiences will not tolerate today) without leading the audience to hate characters or people of particular sexual orientations.

That said, the book made me emotional in the best of ways – tears during Claire and Jamie’s post-rescue fight, apprehension during their return to Lallybroch and reunion with Jenny, intrigue during the scenes between Geillis and Claire, anxiety and angst during much of the rest – and there were many moments where I was sitting on the edge of my seat tightly clutching my iPad wishing the narrator would hurry up because I can read faster than her. I love when a book can twist me into so many knots, and I look forward to picking up the next book in the series.

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