That’s exactly how I feel—trapped! I’m in the middle of the eighth volume of Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series and I’m afraid there might be a ninth book. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed every page (and there were many of them—each book has in excess of 800 pages.) It is beautifully written and I’m envious of her ability to find the exact word for the exact place. But I want to read something else. I want to get out of the 18th century!
Time-travel is the premise of the book. It is not science fiction; you might call it fantasy fiction, but that doesn’t quite fit either. It is split between 20th century England and 18th century Scotland and America. It is well researched and I learned so much about life in those early times. Several important historical events are included in the story that made me wish my knowledge of history was better. Right now, in book eight, they are in the middle of the Revolutionary War and I’m racking my brain to remember the particulars. I was particularly intrigued by the Scotland sequences—the highlanders, the clans, and the countryside—since I have a Scottish forbearer.
The characters are memorable and admirable. Jamie (a tall, red-headed Scot) and Claire (a 20th-century-trained surgeon) Fraser establish a settlement in North Carolina and a great deal of the story takes place there. Other wonderful places to learn about are Scotland, France, the West Indies, coastal Georgia and South Carolina, battlefields, Philadelphia, and various ocean voyages. It is so well told that you feel you are sharing their adventures in each place.
A constant theme through all the books is Claire’s attempts to uphold her Hippocratic Oath. She sets up a surgery wherever she is, sets bones, pulls teeth, treats cuts and gunshot wounds, and delivers babies. Her pharmacopeia is limited to herbs and botanicals, which she gleans from the forest and stream sides. All the way through I kept thinking how interesting that information would be to a pharmacist or an herbalist.
She was exasperated and “fashed” because modern drugs and equipment were not available. (Fash is a Scottish word which means bothered or upset, as in “Don’t fash yourself.” A useful and explicit word and I plan to use it on occasion.) She longed for penicillin, and attempted to make some. The cook made a big to-do about moldy bread on the counter, but she persevered, boiled it up and used it for deep cuts. She was never sure that it worked or if the patient would have survived without it.
Whiskey was the only anesthetic available which worked fairly well for minor jobs, but not for complex surgery, so she figured how to manufacture ether and used it to retrieve a musket ball from a soldier’s abdomen. Ether was so flammable that it was tricky and dangerous, especially when she operated by candlelight and there were open-hearth fires in every room.
I was fascinated by these medical exploits and I’m no doctor nor connected to the medical field in any way. She served as a field doctor, much to the disgust and derision of regular army doctors, but wherever she could help she was determined to be there. An undercurrent throughout was the Protestant/Catholic conflict, and what a divisive thing it was
Another interesting aspect: since she had lived in the 20th century, she knew how events turned out, she knew that the battle of Culloden was a complete and deadly rout, but there was no way to forestall it. They met and liked Benedict Arnold, but they could hardly imagine his proceeding to his inglorious end. Several important men cross their paths, including Generals Washington and Howe and probably others that aren’t familiar to me.
I loved her descriptions of the flora and fauna and the countryside. Aside from the herbs she gathered, was the forest itself—the names of all the trees and plants, the animals, the interactions with the Indian tribes, the streams and springs, the smells, the breezes. I could see and smell the places she described.
I have never been so engrossed by a book. I think about it constantly. Everything reminds me—drinking a cup of coffee makes me think of what an ordeal it was then, going to the spring to get water, building up the fire so it would boil, grinding beans if they had any. It makes coffee taste better. Buying groceries makes me remember the four-day trip on horseback to the coast and the possibility of their finding what they needed. Their only bathing opportunity was a dip in a stream or lake, invariably icy cold, and with lye soap. I doubly appreciate my steaming shower. Birdsong in my front yard makes me think of the ridge and the forest.
So you see, I’m still trapped, but what a delightful place to be trapped. Bring on volume nine! I can hardly wait!
Books in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, in order:
Dragonfly in Amber
Drums of autumn
The Fiery Cross
Breath of Snow and Ashes
An Echo in the Bone
Written in My Own Heart’s Blood
(A publishing date for the ninth book, “Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone,” has not been announced)
For details, visit www.dianagabaldon.com/books/outlander-series/
Peggy Lewis, the mother of A News Cafe.com contributor Jon Lewis, has been a student at the Modesto Institute for Continued Learning since 1983. The institute is a program sponsored by the Modesto Junior College Division of Extended Education and is “designed for the mature adult student who seeks to experience learning for the joy of it.” She wrote this story as an assignment for MICL’s Writer’s Workshop and has graciously allowed A News Café.com to share it. Peggy will celebrate her 95th birthday this month.