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Historical Novels

In faraway places, dark entanglements

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Anna Mundow
June 15, 2008

The Outlander
By Gil Adamson
Ecco, 389 pp., $25.95

Exiles
By Ron Hansen
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 227 pp., $23

Days of Atonement
By Michael Gregorio
Thomas Dunne, 368 pp., $24.95

To my alien ears, certain American words fairly hum with romance. "Ridge" is one of them. "Lonesome" is another. Their Anglo equivalents - hill, lonely - convey none of the drama or the ache. In the spirit of linguistic romance, then, let's "light out for the territories" with another one of those exhilarating Canadian novels that transports us instantly to the frontier. "The Outlander," a remarkable first novel by Gil Adamson, recalls in its breadth and its exuberance Guy Vanderhaeghe's "The Last Crossing," which I have raved about in the past. Like Vanderhaeghe, Adamson takes us on a hunt. "It was night, and dogs came through the trees, unleashed and howling. They burst from the cover of the woods and their shadows swam across a moonlit field." That beautiful, sinister beginning transports us instantly to the West in 1903, where a young woman is on the run, leaving behind her murdered husband and pursued by his twin brothers.

Mary Boulton has been raised for genteel society, not wilderness survival. The daughter of a former Anglican minister, the girl knows only how to ride - horses are one of the delights of this novel - and how to flee. Within a few chapters, however, Mary and her stolen mare are bedding down in the mountains as winter approaches. "The night was so dark she thought something stood between her eyes and the rest of the world. . . . Nothing but the sound of wind through trees. Somewhere to her left, the breathing horse. And high above, the slow funhouse creaking of pine branches."

Adamson's descriptions of the woods and mountains are lyrical and startling, reminiscent in their vividness of Thoreau or Twain, and her heroine is in the great American tradition of fugitive wanderers. But Adamson's characters never become types or, worse, archetypes. The loner who saves Mary's life and steals her heart; the mining town minister who becomes her protector; the miners, the stragglers, and the settlers - each has his or her own vitality and consciousness. Even the old tracker who dismounts "with arthritic languor" to read the traces of Mary's flight is memorable. Then there is the action. "A whistling rain of arrows fell around them . . . she imagined birds had begun to fall from the sky, embedding themselves like tiny suicides in the ground, in the trunks of trees." An arrow extracted from Mary's leg comes out "with a squeak, like a finger on glass." Just try to stop reading after that.

The outcasts in Ron Hansen's elegant, meditative novel, "Exiles," are far more demure if no less interesting. They are five young German nuns, expelled by Bismarck's law against Catholic religious orders, who sailed from Bremen on the steamship Deutschland in December 1875, on their way to Missouri. Off the English coast, the ship ran aground and more than 60 people perished, among them the five nuns. Moved by the tragedy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, the English poet and Jesuit priest, wrote one of his finest works, "The Wreck of the Deutschland," which he dedicated to the memory of the drowned women.

In alternating chapters that are marvels of compression and delicacy, Hansen tells how each nun came to enter the convent - "healthy females hot with love [who] sought a safe object of affection" - how the delicate Hopkins came to maturity both as a priest and a poet, and, not least, how the shipwreck occurred and horribly progressed. "The ship had become an island of affliction and torture as a snowfield of sea foam washed over the quarterdeck, stealing whatever it could," Hansen writes.

A handful of pages later, he movingly describes young Hopkins on his deathbed. " 'I have lost interest in myself,' he said, and closed his eyes and slipped into unconsciousness. His mother petted his ginger-brown hair with her hand. She said with tears, 'Don't you think he looks handsome?' His father was without sentences." In an earlier novel, the sublime "Mariette in Ecstasy," Hansen deftly conveyed the intensity of religious experience that verged on insanity. "Exiles," for all its storminess, is a quieter but equally affecting depiction of a spiritually and artistically transcendental life.

There is nothing contemplative about "Days of Atonement," a mystery set in 1807 in French-occupied Prussia, written by Michael Gregorio, the pen name of an English/Italian husband and wife team. Instead there is bloody murder - three ritually slain children - and a magistrate who once studied with the philosopher Immanuel Kant and who must now enter the mind of the killer he pursues. "If Bonaparte brought anything new to Prussia, it was fear," magistrate Stiffeniis observes, and fear is palpable in the novel's early chapters, which are its most effective. Too soon, however, broad hints telegraph the killer's identity and the anti-Semitism that underlies the crime. Restraint might have been the saving grace of this stridently righteous novel.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, can be reached at ama1668@hotmail.com.

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