What is this Phenom Called “Outlander”?
What is this Phenom Called “Outlander”?

It started out two decades ago when an environmental biologist and university professor decided to see if she could write a novel.

Her name is Diana Gabaldon for those who don’t follow the series on STARZ or who have not read any of her books, starting with the iconic Outlander. The book’s title is an 18th century scathing reference by Scots to anyone English by birth. The word “Sassenach” in Gaelic means roughly the same, but it becomes a term of endearment the hero uses in speaking to the heroine throughout the book.

Ms. Gabaldon (or should I say Dr. Gabaldon?) found her little experiment in novel writing to be a success. Twenty years later, with some eight books in the series and many collateral ones that feature some of the same characters, the author has taken the saga of the Scottish outlaw Jamie Fraser and time-traveling Claire Beauchamp (pronounced Bee-cham) through more than 30 years of adventure, war, and romance. Categorizing the series genre as romance or history or even science fiction is impossible because the books are a combination of all three.

Outlander fans, stop reading here; the rest is already etched in your hearts and minds

Let’s look at how the series starts when Claire drops quite literally from the 20th century into the 18th right in the middle of a skirmish between a Scottish clan and a British army detachment from Fort William in the Highlands.

Claire comes from the time just after World War II in England, where she is married to Frank Randall, with whom she has just been reunited for a second honeymoon. Frank spent the war serving in British intelligence, in a role less exciting but no less perilous than that of  James Bond. Claire has served as an army nurse; she has seen her fill of war but will find her nursing skills of priceless value when she tumbles into the past.

So . . . how does she get there?

Claire and her husband have visited a henge which resembles Stonehenge in England—there are a number of such henges throughout Great Britain. She returns to the site to gather herbs, slips through the stones and becomes disoriented, landing in the same place but in the year 1743. She is immediately set upon by a British officer who bears a startling resemblance to her husband Frank, but this guy is no suave modern man; he tries to rape her, and she is rescued by a Scot and taken back to his clansmen who are riding off to avoid capture. With her nursing skills, Claire helps bind up wounds among the Scots and first meets and treats Jamie Fraser who has dislocated his shoulder in the conflict.

Sparks fly between them, and after further adventures in which the evil British officer, Black Jack Randall, who is her husband Frank’s ancestor, demands she be sent to the fort for questioning. Since she is English, Randall has the right to order her presence. To avoid that, Jamie Fraser’s uncle, Dougal, offers a solution: Claire can marry Jamie and will then be regarded as a Scot and not subject to Randall’s orders. At this point, Claire is still intent on getting back to the henge near Inverness so she can—she hopes—go back successfully through the stones and land back in the 20th century.

The opportunity doesn’t arise, and Claire is resigned to wedding Jamie. Technically speaking, Frank Randall isn’t living in the 18th century; there’s no question of bigamy. She has used her maiden name with the Scottish clansmen and told them she’s a widow.

Dear readers, their wedding night was enough to melt the coldest heart and certain other parts of the anatomy as well. The word ‘sex’ just doesn’t do it justice.

To tell of the ensuing plot would be to spoil the story if you decide to read it, and trust me, the story is well worth the effort of reading. One note of caution: Diana Gabaldon doesn’t write short books. This is no 200 page paperback. It runs close to 1,000 pages, as do the succeeding books in the series; this book, like other later ones in the series, has everything.

First, there is adventure and excitement enough in the story to keep you reading no matter how long the book is. The love scenes are steamier than any modern romance novel, and Claire gets to initiate her new husband into the pleasures of sex. Yes, he is a virgin and Claire is a widow, well, sort of. They are both pursued by Black Jack Randall who doesn’t take defeat easily in his desire to control Claire. Jamie is an outlaw, falsely accused, and his history before meeting Claire includes being whipped as a prisoner by Randall at Fort William.

Next, there is the history of the 1740’s, a time of great unrest in Scotland, which had come under English rule in 1603 when James Stuart, known as James VI of Scotland, became heir to Elizabeth I and ruled both countries as James I of England. Several generations later, James II was ousted by the English for his Roman Catholic tendency. The English feared a return to that faith after their protestant status for over a century. James II retired to the continent and lived for the most part in Rome. His son, Charles Stuart, wanted to restore his father to the English throne—or better yet, have it for himself. Many Scots wanted a return of a Stuart monarch and raised money for a rebellion. Charles, known to history as “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” came to Scotland and raised an army to march south. After Stuart’s early successes, the English came north with a well-equipped army to meet the Scots near Edinburgh in a decisive battle on Flodden Field.

Finally there’s the science fiction part of the book. Here’s where Claire’s time traveling comes into play.

She is from the 20th century and knows her history. Indeed, she and her modern day husband Frank Randall had toured historic Scottish sites just before she falls through the stones and finds herself in 1743. She warns Jamie of the risks and urges him to keep himself and his clan away from Flodden field. However, his uncle Dougal has already pledged Jamie’s clan along with his own to the battle. Now Claire must face a terrible choice: she must leave Jamie and go back to her own time, or take her chances in his century. That’s where the book ends, more or less.

The ending leaves me wondering what it would be like to try to stop a war or at least keep someone I’d love from potentially getting killed in the conflict—and not being able to do so. To know someone’s likely future and not be able to change it for the better is a tragedy in the making.

Will Jamie survive the battle? Will Claire go back to the 20th century? Only time will tell. Okay, dear readers, that’s an awful pun. Bad on me.

Too many spoilers can ruin even the best story, so no more are forthcoming. Let me just say this: in anticipation of the television series that started this past fall, I reread all the books, starting with Outlander, and tried to time it so the latest one, which arrived in bookstores this past June, was ready and waiting when I finished the preceding books. I’ve reread all of the books at least once, and each time I find some little jewel in the story I had overlooked. The entire series is a keeper. Time to buy bigger bookshelves and put them to good use.

Coming Next: Does the television series on STARZ stay true to the first book?

Watch the trailer here:

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