I started Gabaldon’s Outlander series last spring after re-reading the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling and The Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) series by George R.R. Martin before that. I like to have at least one series mixed in to my reading routine, especially epics like this one.
The premise of Outlander centers around Claire Randall, a former WWII nurse, who time-travels to the 1740s while on a second honeymoon with her husband, Frank, in Scotland.
In the eighteenth-century Highlands, Claire meets Jamie Fraser who takes the heroine on the time-travel, romance adventure of her life.
STARZ turned this series into a popular TV series, Outlander, the first two seasons of which are on Netflix. I think the creators of the show do an excellent job adapting the books for TV and I enjoy watching it as much as I enjoy reading the books.
*** SPOILERS FOR BOOK 2/SEASON 2 AHEAD***
One of my favorite things about this particular book is the structure. The novel begins in 1968, despite the fact that the first novel leaves off in winter of 1744. We meet Claire and Jamie’s daughter, Brianna, now a twenty-year-old woman, traveling with her mother in Inverness.
We also revisit Roger Wakefield, the young ward of the Reverend Wakefield in Outlander. Now he is a handsome professor, who takes care of his late, adopted father’s estate and effects.
The attraction Roger feels for Brianna is immediate. But, Claire’s revelation of Brianna’s father’s identity brings the story back to the center relationship between Claire and Jamie.
Claire recounts to Brianna and Roger her adventure with Jamie in France as they attempt to stop Prince Charles Stuart of Scotland from igniting a rebellion against the king of England on behalf of his father, King James III, the Jacobite pretender to the throne of Scotland and England. All the while, Claire contends with her pregnancy, which she announces to Jamie at the end of Outlander.
I always enjoy stories that take this roundabout structure with plot. I know many of my students enjoy the predictable plot diagram we learn about in English 9 — most likely because they are still learning about narrative structure. But after reading so many books, it’s refreshing to read something structured so differently.
To be honest, the political intrigue and military prowess throughout the novel loses my interest in some parts. The captivation for me is the character, Claire.
Claire fascinates me because she is a strong woman who pioneers her way as a scientist — a nurse, a healer, a doctor — at times in history when women were not supposed to be leaders in this field.
“‘I’m a doctor,’ she [Claire] explained, mouth curling a little at the look of surprise Roger hadn’t quite managed to conceal.”Gabaldon 6
Additionally, I enjoy how Gabaldon interweaves questions and philosophy into her characters and their stories. Because Claire is the intelligent woman she is, readers get to consider the same problems she does.
The problems Claire tries to parse out in the novel invite us to think about the essence of things. This project often leaves Claire feeling stuck:
“I was helpless; powerless to move as a dragonfly in amber”Gabaldon 339
One such problem Claire explores further in Dragonfly is the relationship between science, healing, magic, and faith. Claire is a “renaissance” woman when it comes to helping others heal. She understands science and evidence but leaves room for the miraculous and what she cannot explain — not the least of which is her trip through the stones at Craigh na Dun to the eighteenth century! She applies this to her healing in the aftermath of a brutal, sexual assault of her friend, the young, innocent Mary Hawkins. Master Raymond and Mother Hildegarde, two new characters, become Claire’s healing mentors Paris and help her understand her role as a healer and doctor.
“‘All I can do is try to help her heal.’Gabaldon 351-53
‘Most physicians of my acquaintance would say, “All I can do is try to heal her.” You will help her to heal? It’s interesting that you percieve the difference, madonna. I thought you would… And the pride of the physician being what it is, most often he blames himself for those that die, and congratulates himself upon the triumph of his skill for those that live. But La Dame Blanche [Claire] sees the essence of a man, and turns it in to healing — or to death. So an evil doer may well fear to look upon her face'”
Another motif this novel explores is that of motherhood. There is ample room for Claire to contemplate her role as a mother in Dragonfly throughout her pregnancy and in her recollections about the birth of Brianna.
“Babies are soft. Anyone looking at them can see the tender fragile skin and know it for the rose-leaf softness that invites a finger’s touch. But when you live with them and love them, you feel the softness going inward, the round-cheeked flesh wobbly as custard, the boneless splay of the tiny hands. Their joints are melted rubber, and even when you kiss them down and seem never to find bone. Holding them against you, they melt and mold, as though they might at any moment flow back into your body. But from the very start, there is that small streak of steel within each child. That thing that says ‘I am,’ and forms the core of personality. . . . But my own core held no longer in the isolation of ‘I am,’ and I had no protection to shield me from the softness within. I no longer knew what I was or what she [Brianna] would be; only what I must do”Gabaldon 69-70
Claire reveals in Outlander that she desperately wants a child, but is time and again unsuccessful in conceiving with her first husband, Frank. Her elation, Jamie’s, and ours is palpable throughout Dragonfly in Amber as we await the result of her pregnancy. As a result, we deeply feel it when Claire miscarries her first daughter, Faith.
I appreciate how Gabaldon includes the experience of infertility, frustrations over being childless, jealousy over others who have progeny, and the grief that comes with a miscarriage in Claire’s story because it is a common experience — for women and men. We don’t tell enough stories about these issues and our silence on the subject perpetuates the feeling of isolation we experience, even though the experience itself is ubiquitous across continents and generations.
“I knew that only Jamie himself could pull me back into the land of the living. That was why I had run from him, done all I could to keep him away, to make sure he would never come near me again. I had no wish to come back, no desire to feel again. I didn’t want to know love, only to have it ripped away once more. But it was too late. I knew that, even as I fought to hold the gray shroud around me. Fighting only hastened its dissolution; it was like grasping shreds of cloud, that vanished in cold mist between my fingers. I could feel light coming, blinding and searing”Gabaldon 502
Finally, the musings on history interest me, too. As an American Studies teacher, the comments Frank, Claire, Roger, and the others make about the nature of history and how history gets told through primary and secondary sources intrigues me. Gabaldon excises the problems primary and secondary sources present to historians.
“We think of historical persons as something different than ourselves, sometimes halfway mythological. . . . We see them, and yet we know nothing of them. The strange hairstyles, the odd clothes — they don’t seem people that you’d know, do they? An the way so many artists painted them, the faces are all alike; pudding-faced and pale, most of them, and not a lot more you can say about them. Here and there, one stands out . . . . A Gentleman . . . But they were real people. They did much the same things you do — give or take a few small details like going to the pictures or driving down the motorway — but they cared about their children, they loved their husbands and wives . . . well, sometimes they did”Gabaldon 190-92.
Additionally, Gabaldon asks a thought-provoking question in this novel: who’s to blame for the distortions of history? Who’s to blame for blurring the essence of what really happened? Claire, a mediator between centuries, has her response:
“‘Not the historians. No, no them. Their greatest crime is that they presume to know what happened, how things come about, when they have only what the people chose to leave behind — for the most part, they think what they were meant to think, and it’s a rare one that sees what really happened, behind the smokescreen of the artifacts and paper . . . . No, the fault lies with the artists. The writers, the singers, the tellers of tales. It’s them that take the past and re-create it to their liking. Them that could take a fool and give you back a hero, take a sot and make him a king . . . . Liars? Or Sorcerors? Do they see the bones i nthe dust of the earth, see the essence of a thing that was and clothe it in new flesh, so the plodding beast reemerges as a fabulous monster?'”Gabaldon 907
I keep thinking about this question lately…a lot. My reading about the Holocaust dredges this question up I plan on writing more about it as I review those books. But right now . . . what do you think? Do we blame artists for the distortion of history? I’d be interested to read what you think in the comments.
The title of the novel is fitting: Dragonfly in Amber. We might feel trapped by the ineffability of these questions and problems; but they fascinate us so because they pierce through to our own essence, the core within us that is as hard and as transparent as the gift of a dragonfly in amber.