The Outsider - Penelope Williamson I understand that The Outsider is loosely based on a John Wayne movie, "Angel and the Badman." I confess I'm not a John Wayne fan, have never seen this movie, and other than "The Unforgiven", I can't say I'm a huge fan of western movies generally. That admission, to some, may be close to heresy. Likewise, with a few exceptions, western styled historical romances aren't my favorite sub-genre either. So it's surprising to me how much I love this book.

I think one of the reasons The Outsider resonates with me is it's broader story dealing with internal conflicts when forced to choose between conforming to inflexible societal strictures and the siren call of personal freedom. The "outsider" in this case is Johnny Cain, a flashy gunslinger whose reputation as a mankiller precedes him wherever he goes. Cain staggers bleeding, gunshot and near death onto Rachel Yoder's sheep farm. She and her son, Benjo, are part of a religious sect known as Plain People, a broad term for sub-sects similar to the Amish, Quakers, and Mennonites. Despite her fears and reservations, Rachel nurses him back to health.

Plain People like Rachel and Benjo are also viewed as "outsiders", by townspeople who see them as separate and alien. Their simple dress, a pacifist attitude, and utilitarian views on farming set them apart and serve as a focus for townspeople to taunt, harass, and intimidate them. The fact that they are sheep farmers in a country where cattle ranching is king also adds an element to the conflict between the Plain People and townspeople. In fact, Rachel's husband, Ben, was unjustly hung as a cattle thief when he was returning cows that had wandered onto his sheep farm. So there are many layers and interpretations of just who exactly is the outsider namesake of the book.

While Rachel and Johnny's relationship in The Outsider is related only in Rachel's point of view, I was struck by how much I came to see and understand Johnny's feelings for her despite not being privy to his thoughts. His love for Rachel is clear and just as engaging in the subtle nuanced glimpses that other characters note and reflect on. For example, Noah sees how Johnny makes Rachel laugh. Lucas sees how Johnny's eyes linger caressingly on Rachel. There was something almost poetic in the way these scenes (and, in fact, the entire book) are written - the tender way Johnny takes care of the dead lamb, the scene where Johnny and Rachel are feeding the old gap-toothed ewe's baby to save its life, when Johnny teaches Rachel to dance in the meadow, the ongoing joke about teaching Johnny to be a "lamb licker". Too many to list.

These are characters that have depth redolent with flaws and insecurities as well as hopes and dreams. Benjo, Rachel's nine-year old son, struggles with town bullies and a stutter that severely hinders his ability to communicate. Noah whose unrequited love for Rachel could easily have made him villainous but instead gives him a vulnerability that is heartbreaking at times. Quinten Hunter, the half Native American son of Fergus Hunter, the cattle rancher, wasn't painted in black and white either. The terrible things he helped his father do to Mose and Rachel and Benjo to run the Plain People off the land were reprehensible, but his fruitless search for Fergus' acceptance and approval made him seem human. Ben, Rachel's deceased husband, is just as much a part of this story as any others. I think I fell a little in love with Ben despite the fact he's not alive when the story takes place and is only related via Rachel's memories. He cherished Rachel's love for him and he never took it or her for granted. The scene in which Noah shames Rachel for painting her clay cups and Ben defends her made me love him more.

"And did even God not make some things just for pretty?" he'd shouted at Noah, so loud the plates had rattled." (31)

I, too, felt Rachel's pain and heartache at his loss and the injustice of his murder at Fergus' instigation.

Penelope Williamson's writing is splendid and gorgeous and wonderful with a lyrical quality that's almost poetic. The Outsider is an excellent book rich in details of the Plain People, rich in time and place and characters who seem as real as you or me, and rich in a story of redemption and love. I still can't make myself watch "Angel and the Bad Man" ('cause John Wayne, you know), but I will search for Showtime cable channel's movie version of this book on DVD. I'll wrap up with my favorite scene of Johnny and Rachel dancing in the meadow.

"Somehow they stopped walking and were facing each other. The wind fluttered her cap strings. He took one in each hand and pulled them down until they were stretched taut, with his fingers barely brushing her breasts, and yet she felt his touch all the way to her toes.

He surprised her by starting to sing, a lilting song about a girl named Annie Laurie, filling in with la-di-das when he forgot the words, and at some time he had let go of her cap strings to take her hand, and he was now fitting his palm to hers, entwining their fingers, while his other hand had lifted her arm by the wrist and was draping it over his shoulder, and he was sliding his arm around her waist.

And they were dancing." (261)