For every way in which Anna North’s Outlawed seems to be a book about the classic Old West, there’s an equal and opposite way in which it bucks the tropes. There’s sharpshooting and horseback riding, jailbreaking and bank-robbing; its central outlaws are even called the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, after the real-life gunslingers who operated out of Wyoming’s Hole-in-the-Wall pass during the 19th century.
But North’s version of the 1890s sees the American West still struggling to recover from an 1830s pandemic—reimagined from a real, albeit less devastating, 1830s flu epidemic—that decimated the population enough to leave the region obsessed with procreation and a belief that any woman who can’t (or won’t) bear children is a witch. The members of North’s inclusive Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, led by a nonbinary icon known only as “the Kid,” have each in their own way rejected society’s unforgiving expectations. What follows is a captivating tale of escape and acceptance told through the eyes of Ada, a progressive young midwife whose own fertility issues force her to seek refuge with the Kid’s merry troupe of outlaws.
While the story always centered around a community on the fringes, it didn’t originate in the West: North began writing it after touring a Shaker dwelling in New Hampshire. “The Shakers were sort of a separatist religious sect in the 19th century, and the thing about them is they didn’t marry, and they didn’t have children, and they would live sort of communally together,” she tells Mental Floss. “I got really interested in this idea of living separately from society and this kind of alternative family life.”
North eventually moved the story to the American West in part because she realized it had “always been this sort of liminal space, and a place where some of the rules of more staid Northeastern society didn’t apply. … Some people were able to achieve a kind of freedom in the American West at the expense of the freedom of colonized peoples who had lived there, so there are a lot of contradictions there.” The other reason the West seemed a natural fit was because North, who came to New York from California a decade ago, considers herself “still not that good at writing, like, Northeast [forests] for some reason, so the landscapes of the West are a little bit easier.”
The decision to make the novel an alternate history allowed her the latitude to blend factually accurate elements from her research with certain anachronistic details—e.g. lyrics from a Nirvana song—and its own unique “mood and feel.”
“I wasn’t as worried about, like, ‘Is this gonna feel like 1894 to someone?’” she explains. “Or, ‘Is this gonna have the same tone as real-life accounts written in that year?’”
North isn’t the only contemporary author to chart a new course through the Old West. “I think there’s been a number of writers who are going back and looking at the Western and saying ‘How can we play with the genre in interesting ways? How can we make it our own?’” she says.
Here are six books by authors who have done just that, recommended by North.
These entries have been edited for clarity.
1. How Much of These Hills Is Gold // C Pam Zhang
“For starters, the setting is really beautiful. I didn’t get to go back to California all of last year, and it really made me feel like I was there. The sense of being in Gold Country is just really palpable. But it’s also a story about land and ownership and dispossession—and who owns land, and what does it even mean to own land, and what does it mean to be home? … There’s a way in which the book builds kind of a mythic world. There aren’t years, so instead of 1851 it’ll say 'XX51.' It’s all part of building this a little bit larger-than-life reality, so it’s not quite like this is a history text. It’s more complicated and interesting than that, but at the same time it’s also deeply engaged with the history of Chinese Americans in the American West, and the history of racism and violence against Chinese Americans in the American West.
“It’s about two siblings: One of them is a young woman, and one of them is—I’m not sure that this term is ever used in the book, but—a trans man. And so it plays with ideas around masculinity and the Western in ways that I know Zhang has talked about in interviews, including with me. So it’s just really good; it’s one of my favorite books from last year. It was also one of Barack Obama’s favorite books from last year, so it comes recommended.”
Buy it: Amazon
2. In the Distance // Hernan Diaz
“It’s definitely one of the weirdest books I’ve read in a long time. It’s basically about a Swedish boy who comes to America, and then he takes a wrong turn and accidentally ends up in San Francisco, and then he starts going east to find his brother, and it takes basically decades. And then he becomes an outlaw and a wanted man, and also a giant—he grows to an enormous height; people are really afraid of him—and he does some crimes, and then he feels horrible. And then at one point he also digs a burrow, like a groundhog or something, and lives underground for a really long period of time. He becomes a total hermit.
“This makes it sound like it’s just really meandering, and it is, but it’s also maybe a road novel. It’s definitely about a journey, but it’s also sort of turning the idea of a Western hero on its head—so if your John Wayne or whatever is this cowboy, he’s gonna show up and conquer the West. The hero of this book feels totally uncomfortable; he doesn’t want to conquer anything. Even though he sort of becomes an outlaw, he’s also very respectful of the land and of indigenous people ... The fact that I’m having trouble summing this up just tells you how bizarre this book is, but it’s really wonderful and moving. It’s just nothing like anything you’ve ever read before.”
Buy it: Amazon
3. Inland // Téa Obreht
“It’s about this woman, a homesteader, and then also about this man who is a camel driver, and he’s inspired by a real-life story of a Camel Corps that actually went across the American West. And so through him, it’s kind of an immigrant story and also the story of a very sweet relationship between a person and an animal. I think horses are really important in a lot of Westerns, and Inland instead takes this camel and makes it this really important character, so I think that’s really interesting. And then obviously in terms of the homesteader—this woman who’s sort of an abandoned wife—it looks at what it’s like to be a woman all alone in fairly harsh terrain where she has trouble getting water.
“It’s not like it examines colonialism exactly, but it definitely looks at this white woman and this white family who are on colonized land; they’re colonizers—what does that mean to them? It doesn’t really look at it that much from the point of view of indigenous people. I don’t want to reveal the ending at all, but I really loved the ending a lot, and it does something interesting with the idea of reality and the supernatural that I just think is really cool. So I recommend people read it just for that.”
Buy it: Amazon
4. Four Treasures of the Sky // Jenny Tinghui Zhang
“It just absolutely blew me away; it’s really devastating. It’s the story of a young person who is labor-trafficked to the U.S. from China against her will, arrives in San Francisco, and ends up making her way east to Idaho. And I don’t want to say too much about it, but it’s based on the real-life story of a lynching of Chinese Americans that happened in Idaho that the author read about. It’s also a coming-of-age story, and a story of someone coming into their identity as a human being and kind of integrating who they are with their own personal history, their personal myths and their family myths.
“I think right now, and especially when I read it a couple months ago, it’s an especially chilling read because it’s a reminder of some of the roots of anti-Asian racism that we still see. But I hate to talk about it like it’s just a historical text or something, because it’s not. It’s a brilliant novel, and then also sort of a Western in that it takes place in the American West. It has these scenes in San Francisco, these scenes in Idaho, and also looks at a group of people who were very much a part of the history of what we think of as the American West, but who are often erased from that history.”
Pre-order it: Amazon
5. O Beautiful // Jung Yun
“This isn’t a Western in the gunslinging sense. It’s about a reporter who goes home to North Dakota to write a story about the oil boom and all these other things end up coming out of that. And I think just the North Dakota setting, and this sort of boomtown ethos, and going to investigate 'black gold'—it’s like the Gold Rush—I think those are all Western-y elements. It feels like a story that hasn’t been told that much and a particular slice of the West that has sometimes been neglected in fiction. And it’s also really well-written and kind of a mystery, and very gripping. It’s a little bit less of a Western but still something I’d recommend.”
Pre-order it: Amazon
6. The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu // Tom Lin
“My last one is something that I will freely admit I actually just started, so I can’t completely say how it’s gonna be, but I’m really excited about it. So far, it’s great—definitely a Western—and has some of the same interesting vibes as In the Distance or also just a lot of Westerns, in that we begin the book with this really isolated male character who is clearly trying to track down a grudge—so this very famous Western trope. And you can see the way the author is probably gonna turn it on its head in a number of ways, including the fact that the main character is not a white John Wayne type. I’ve just scratched the surface of it, but I’m excited to read more.”
Buy it: Amazon