Reviewed by Wendy Hawkin
In 2007, poet-author Gil Adamson (Gillian) published her award-winning debut novel, The Outlander. Thirteen years later, we are reading the sequel. It’s almost in real-time.
The Outlander tells the story of nineteen-year-old Mary Boulton who kills her husband, flees to the Canadian Rockies and is pursued by her two brothers-in-law. There she meets several eccentric characters in an Alberta mining town, with one of whom she falls in love: William Moreland, the Ridgerunner. Adamson wonders what would happen if this couple had a child. They do, and several years later we’re reading about the boy’s internal struggles in this touching, coming-of-age story.
Jack Boulton is a twelve-year-old boy. His mother, Mary, died the previous fall. Jack got sick, and his father left him with a local nun so he could go back to his previous life of crime. Blowing up mines and robbing banks is ridgerunner senior’s forte. But William’s motives are heartfelt. He’s trying to make a slew of money so he and his boy can live somewhere peacefully. Plus, he’s trying to cope with his wife’s unexpected death. The only (well, maybe not the only) problem is, the nun, one Emelia Cload has decided that the boy is hers.
Jack is not enamoured with this decision, and early in the story, he escapes his regimented captivity and heads home. The nun (which is what she is called most often) wants him back and puts up a wanted poster with a $2000 reward for his return. If that seems like odd behaviour for a nun, brace yourself. That’s only the beginning. The nun is an unexpected antagonist.
The boy learns to shoot, live alone, take a beating, fend for himself and, in short order, becomes a man. Jack becomes the new Ridgerunner. The parallels between father and son are prevalent in this story. They are both outlaws, on the run, and trying to survive in hostile terrain.
This is a rollicking literary adventure told in three parts. The horses, guns, and wild animals give it a western feel. At one point, Moreland spends three days treed by an old grizzly. It’s character-driven but there’s plenty of action, tension, suspense, and dropped bombs (which I won’t reveal.) It also has a historical CanLit feel as it’s set in and around Banff and Lake Louise, formerly the town of Laggan. Since it’s 1917 when the story begins, there are references to The Great War—the working men of a prison camp feature in the plot.
Adamson’s lyrical prose and poetic descriptions immerse us in this rugged Western Canadian landscape. She is mad with details and rich with language. “Hair in horripilating waves.” Now, there’s a word. There are bits of Nakoda, a strange language spoken by Sampson Beaver the second, and interjections of folksy wisdom. “If you’re afraid of doing something son, you’re more or less obligated to do it.” Adamson comments that allusions to Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island, and True Grit, among others, pepper the book and are among her influences, along with “Western and noir movies, songs, and fairy tales.” I heard shades of Lonesome Dove and The Tenderness of Wolves myself. The haunting landscape of the wild places, of pioneers, of bygone days lends itself to lyrical prose.
Ridgerunner is published by House of Anansi.