Book Review: Outlander

Book Name: Outlander
Author: Diana Galbadon
First Published: 1991

Diana Galbadon grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona where she earned a BA in Zoology from Northern Arizona University. Later she would gain a Masters of Science in Marine Biology from UC San Diego and Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Then she returned to Arizona to earn her PhD in Behavioral Ecology from Northern Arizona University.

She would become a full-time assistant professor in the Center for Environmental Studies at Arizona State University where she did research, scientific computing and database management and taught classes in anatomy among other subjects. She was the founding editor of Science Software Quarterly and would later write software reviews and technical articles for computer publications as well as popular-science articles and comic books for Disney.

In 1988, Gabaldon began to write a novel “for practice” and without any intention of showing it to anyone. As a research professor, she thought that a historical novel would be the simplest novel for her to write, but she had no particular time period that drew her. It was during this time that Galbadon happened to see an episode of “Dr. Who” entited “War Games”. One of the doctor’s companions was a Scotish Highlander from around 1745 by the name of Jamie MacCrimmon. This character became the spark for her novel’s mid-18th century Scotland setting and one of the lead main characters of the book, James Fraser. However, during the writing, her female lead, Claire Randall, took over the book, making smart-ass comments that were decidedly modern throughout the story. To explain this character’s mindset, Gabaldon added the element of time travel to the story. And as they say, the rest was history.

“You are my courage, as I am your conscience,” he whispered. “You are my heart—and I your compassion. We are neither of us whole, alone. Do ye not know that, Sassenach?” – Diana Galbadon

Outlander begins just after World War II. A British Army nurse and her husband, an Oxford history professor, are together at last after being separated by the war. They travel to Inverness, Scotland in order to have a second honeymoon and for Frank Randall to research his family history. As Frank digs into his research, his wife Claire Randall gathers plants near a circle of standing stones on a hill known as Craigh na Dun. After witnessing a pagan ritual being performed at the stones, Claire returns the next day and is distracted from her plant gathering by a strange humm in the rocks, she touches one of the standing stones and is overcome briefly.

She awakens to the sound of a distant battle and as she wanders about, she is apprehend by a group of Scotsmen that believe her to be a British spy. Claire is confused by the speech and dress of these Scotsmen who later reveal to her that they are members of Clan MacKenzie. They wear clothing that is centuries out of date and their speech is difficult to understand. As the MacKenzie Clan departs the battlefield, one of their own is wounded. Claire uses her nurse’s skill to reset a young warrior’s shoulder. He is called Jamie MacTavish and the Scotsmen put him in charge of taking care of Claire as they continue on their home, Castle Leoch, the seat of Clan MacKenzie.

At the castle, Claire is questioned by the laird, Colum. By now she has figured out that she has traveled backwards in time via the stones of Craigh na Dun. Claire believes that she needs to return to the stones in order to find her way home to the 20th Century and back to her husband. The Scots see Claire as an “Sassenach”, an Outlander who is ignorant of Highlander culture and one of the hated English. Claire pretends to be a widow who has lost all her possessions in order to hide her secret. Colum does not believe her and forbids her from leaving the castle.

Colum wants to learn more about Claire and decides to send her with his brother Dougal’s party as he collects the rents from the tenants on MacKenzie land. Dougal is collecting more than rent, he is also taking donations for the Jacobite cause. At each village, he orders Jamie to remove his shirt so that the farmers can see the whip marks on his back, gained during an interrogation by Captain “Black Jack” Randall. When the villagers see the marks, they donate more money. Claire is appalled by the way that Jamie is being used and the two begin to form a friendship.

Later, Captain Randall demands that Claire be given up to him so that he can question her. The clansmen do not wish to turn her in due to the Captain’s reputation of brutality. The lawyer who travels with them, in order to oversee the processing of the rents, notes that the only way to keep Claire safe from the English is to make her legally a Scotswoman. He proposes that one of the men marry the widow. Dougal considers marrying Claire himself, but then decides to force Jamie to do it since he is more expendable. Claire balks at the idea, but after many arguments and fear of facing the English Captain, she agrees.

Young Jamie also agrees to the marriage. He insists that he and Claire are married properly in kirk. He informs her that his real name is James Fraser, not MacTavish. Jamie is a wanted man with a price on his head. He wants to start this marriage with honesty and to marry her with his real name. Claire is touched by the kindness Jamie shows on their wedding day. She is also surprised to find her wedding night with the young highlander to be more enjoyable than she expected. She is torn between love for her husband Frank, who is on the other side of the standing stones, and her growing fondness for Jamie. However, she is still determined to return home if the opportunity presents itself.

As the collection party travels near Craigh na Dun, Claire escapes from the Scotsmen and attempts to return to the stones. She nearly drowns in the process and is captured by the British. After much daring, Jamie manages to rescue her and the pair, along with Dougal and the party, return to Castle Leoch.

Claire and Jamie settle into married life in the castle. Jamie works in the stables and Claire continues her work as a healer. She befriends Geilis Duncan, the wife of a town official who shares her love of medicine. While Jamie is away, Claire and Geilis are charged with witchcraft. It is during the time that the pair wait to be tried and burned at the stake when Claire realizes that her friend is also a time traveler like herself.

Jamie manages to arrive in time to save Claire from being burned at the stake and the pair of them are forced to flee from Castle Leoch. When they find themselves safe, Claire confesses her secret to Jamie. She is a time-traveler and she is not exactly a widow, her husband is alive and well in the future. Jamie believes her story and takes her to Craigh na Dun himself. He tells her to make her choice. He will wait for her at the bottom of the hill until morning. Claire finds herself near the humming stones and knows that she could return to the 20th century if she wished, but at that moment, she realizes that she loves Jamie and wishes to remain with him.

Jamie and Claire travel to Jamie’s home and live with his sister and her husband. Although Jamie is still an outlaw of the British army, he decides to take on his role as Lallybroch’s laird. They are somewhat isolated on Jamie’s land, but it is not long before the new laird is betrayed by one of his own and is taken to Wentworth Prison where Black Jack Randall is waiting. Claire is determined to rescue Jamie against impossible odds. This leads to a highly charged climax to the novel.

I always intended to read Outlander. Honest, I did! However, I was in a place in my life when books took a back seat to filmmaking and other artistic pursuits and stayed that way for well over a decade. So the series remained undiscovered by me until three years ago when I heard a few of my artist friends talking about An Echo in the Bone and I thought that I should at least give the original book a try.

I was transported into this romantic world full of beautiful historical details that had an interesting time travel element. It was like nothing I had read before. The story between Claire and Jamie is rich and full featured, their love simply grows as they age, like the complexity of a fine wine. It has since become one of my favorite book series. I’m discovering that most of my friends are fans of this series as well. 2014 will see the debut of Outlander on cable television as Starz begins to produce the story, one book per 16 episode season. It has won an award for best new television series in the UK.

Don’t make my mistake and put off reading Outlander. If you like romance, historical fiction, Scotland, or time travel stories, Diana Galbadon will deliver.

Outlander Book CoverOutlander (1991) (published in the UK and Australia as Cross Stitch)
Dragonfly in Amber (1992)
Voyager (1994)
Drums of Autumn (1997)
The Fiery Cross (2001)
A Breath of Snow and Ashes (2005)
An Echo in the Bone (2009)
Written in My Own Heart’s Blood (2014)

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