I read Gil Adamson’s The Outlander (2007) in February 2009, on my daily subway commute, and on the afternoon that I was nearly finished reading, I started a conversation about it with another commuter, who was also reading it. I waited until I’d moved towards the door, prepared to disembark at the next stop, before I remarked on the coincidence of our both reading this not-so-new Canadian novel, just a few seats apart—it was a short but enthusiastic conversation!

Overall, I read that book in a rush; I didn’t even stop to mark passages with flags, let alone take notes along the way. It reminded me of Jane Smiley’s The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (1998), and it satisfied an urge I didn’t know I had, for stories about adventuresome women in the west. Ridgerunner takes up after The Outlander has finished, when Mary and William have had a child, named Jack.

While the bulk of the novels longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize are character-driven, Adamson’s is plottier than most.

That isn’t to say atmosphere doesn’t rate, only that there are mysteries that readers hope to have resolved as they read on. The Ridgerunner being in constant motion, creates a sustained, underlying note of tension throughout. And the stakes are heightened when someone has “a conscience in working order” but it’s “labouring under the burden” of history.

Fuelling these tensions further, the story plays out against a backdrop of desperation and destruction. Ordinary details contribute to an overarching sense of battles already having been lost. This description just a few pages in remains one of my favourites, for the way it quietly reminds us that we are in another kind of time (measured not by devices, but by breaths preceding an blast) and place (where struggle is ever-present):

He’d make his careful way to the edge of an exhausted and abandoned shaft, open his gloved hands like a devil in an opera, and release those sticks into the dark, where they fell for two breaths and landed unseen atop all the other garbage down there, the broken carts, winches and wheels and pick handles, the rotted rope and clothing, tin cans, the skeletons of expired pit ponies.

Those opened, gloved hands alert readers that Adamson is an attentive and poetic storyteller. The fractures and the rot pervade the story, and there is more darkness in this story than readers will expect from the opening chapters, but the steady pacing maintains engagement and the resolution is wholeheartedly satisfying.

It’s not uncommon for a debut novel to be listed for the Giller, though less common for it to win (Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists in 2010 is one exception), but The Outlander wasn’t recognized in a year which was heavy on narrative and style, lighter on language and structure. But many of this year’s nominees prioritize story over craft: this is the kind of book readers can fall into, and it could be the kind of book jurors fall for too. [Edited to add that it’s progressed to the shortlist.]

Inner workings
Even though this is a spell-binding story, that seems to prioritize its narrative above all else, there are many subtle bolsters to theme and atmosphere throughout. References to survival and endurance: “With so many absences, Jack had become good at studying and remembering his father, the way an animal eats every last scrap and readies itself for lean times.” And reminders that it’s a bear-eat-bear kind of world: “…where foxes and cats shot past him and cantered up alleys, busy with their own predations”.

Intensely satisfying balance between lyrical storytelling and perfunctory exposition: “So the particularities of wood and stone and pebbled earth, of explosion and implosion, impact and scatter, were as familiar to him as his own hands. But this safe was solid steel. He knew what would happen, and it did.” (The parallelism, the assonance, and rhythm of it all: then, brass-tacks realness.)

Mostly between-places, and mostly like this:
“But a small town is a living engine run on talk, innumerable bees grumbling in their paper cells. Jack heard it everywhere he went. Gossip, opinionation, conjecture, speculation, debate.”

Predominantly the story of a handful of solitary characters.
Like: “William Moreland had spent more than three-quarters of his life like this: outside, alone, listening to the world, carrying his life on his back, riding his own uncommon instincts, in bad weather, in bad light, in sickness and in health.”
But somehow their searching, their desperation and yearning, translates into more plot than one would predict.
(Plus, Moreland is a wanted man.)

Readers Wanted
You’ve got a well-worn copy of Lonesome Dove tucked in a stack of paperbacks.
Glancing at this cover has you sniffing sage and well-oiled saddles (even though there’s no horse).
Ideas like this keep you awake at night:
“And what if you see something at night, actually see it, reach out and touch it, but nonetheless cannot bring yourself in the light of day to believe that it was real?”

This book is a nominee for the 2020 Giller Prize. This post follows a format I first used in 2012. Prizelists invite readers to peer more closely at current publications; they can spark conversation, draw attention to hard-working writers, and encourage readers to look beyond these lists to the many, many other works of quality that are not included on longlists. Reading the longlisted books represents less than 5% of my year’s reading. Read widely and share your favourites!