Reflections on Diana Gabaldon, presented by Cecilia Krupa to the Calgary Women’s Literary Club, November 5, 2019
The 2018 PBS Great American Reads Survey listed Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as the most-beloved book in the United States. What surprised me was seeing Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander in second place. That gave me pause. I had never heard of the book, but as often happens in life, I found myself in Chapters days later where I spied two forlorn looking characters (Claire and Jamie) on the cover of a paperback book. Serendipity! I snapped it up. At home, I settled into Outlander, but it took me until page six hundred to decide whether to continue reading it. I was unsure if Gabaldon’s detailed sex scenes made her an appropriate author for a presentation, but I persevered and once committed, I found myself on a long, fantastical literary journey like no other I’ve ever taken.
Outlander begins as the protagonist Claire accidently passes through a circle of ancient stones in Inverness, Scotland time travelling to 1743 when she meets Jamie Fraser, a Scottish soldier living in the Highlands. Their romantic, sometimes tumultuous life together, captured and held my attention. A lingering concern about the violent sexual scenes depicted remained, but I soon understood that every scene Gabaldon writes is written in the same explicit detail thanks to her extensive research, whether depicting a horrific battle at Culloden, a difficult surgical procedure without ether, or a violent confrontation with a charging buffalo.
Scholars, bookstores and readers alike have not been able to agree on a categorization for Gabaldon’s work. Her colossal multiple award-winning volumes can span 1500 pages each, and may be categorized as Fantasy, Historical Romance, or even Science Fiction. Her two massive Outlandish Guides contain maps, floor plans, synopsis, essays, terminology and historical facts. They list numerous characters in alphabetical order, even including animals. Who can ever forget Rollo, the loyal wolf dog, or Laurence, the cantankerous mule?
While reading the seventh book in the series, An Echo in the Bone (critically described as Gabaldon’s masterpiece), I paused to scribble “Beautiful!” in the margin as Gabaldon described her heroine, now a surgeon, and living with her family and former Highlanders on Fraser’s Ridge in North Carolina, lamenting the loss of her “weathered palisades” of a garden by quoting Yeats. I will arise and go now and go to Innisfree. After the last chapter, I scooped up the eighth book, Written in my Own Heart’s Blood and turned to the Prologue: In the light of eternity, time casts no shadow. Then I flipped to chapter one, pencil in hand, impatient to continue the journey.
Gabaldon’s complex characters inhabit frosty castles; gather by the warmth of the hearth; consume whiskey by night and parritch (porridge) by dawn; lead horses through moss-laden creaks to battle; return beaten, bloody and yearning for home and duck into print shops in search of a long-lost love, while escaping torrential rain.
Readers can smell the ink; feel the whiskey burn in their throats and taste the burnt porridge; hear the staccato clatter of horse’s hooves over wet stones and envision the emerald green creek trickling past Lallybroch at dusk. Gabaldon is a master of imagery. I anxiously await her yet to be published ninth book, Go Tell the Bees That I am Gone and then, if there is no tenth book to follow, I will mourn the journey’s end.
Gabaldon: Storyteller extraordinaire: Bold. Beautiful. Beloved.
*My presentation included Scottish tea; a handout; a video of Paul McCartney singing Mull of Kintyre; the intro to the Netflix series as sung by Bear McCreary; a 13 page written report with a prologue comparing my son’s fervor for the Harry Potter series to my own for Gabaldon; a brief history of Scotland; a glimpse into Scottish culture; the author as storyteller and a power point presentation which included photos of the author and me wearing the same black and white fleece jackets. Comrades.”