The Yee and the Haw: Outlawed with An Agenda
On Anna North’s Outlawed, Space Cowboys, and Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead.
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Spoilers for Outlawed by Anna North.
Picture this: It is Summer 2019. Love Island isn’t over yet, London is a little too hot to bear for once in its sordid little life, and I get on a train to Warwickshire to escape it. One of my friends had been kind enough to host me for the weekend. Before I return to London, we decide to watch a film: Sam Raimi’s revisionist Western The Quick and the Dead (1995), starring the illustrious Sharon Stone. I had never seen it before. I fall in love (with the film). I am hooked.
Westerns have only ever been in my periphery. Be it episodes of Deadwood I was far too young to watch, or whatever fresh hell Kingsman: The Golden Circle was, I’ve always been aware of cowboys. But never really invested in them.
However, I’ve always loved stories that are Western-adjacent. I grew up watching Firefly and Cowboy Bebop. I spend an inordinate amount of time following the adventures of that sexy tin can and his little green baby on The Mandalorian. I watched Jonah Hex for the plot, the plot in question being Megan Fox. I am one of those people whose favourite show is Westworld and would not shut up about it.
I am fully behind the Yee-Haw Agenda, especially if it has a little bit of bleep-bloop involved. But The Quick and the Dead really changed things for me. I sought out the classics like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, wrote my EP with Sam Raimi’s film in mind, and I’ve even started reading Westerns.
Recently, in an attempt to familiarise myself with and finesse away onto Amy Adams’ latest project with A24, I read Outlawed by Anna North. The novel is being adapted by Adams’ production company into a series. Before even starting the book, I knew it would be right up my alley.
Outlawed follows 17-year-old Ada, a midwife-to-be from the fictional town of Fairchild, set in an alternate 1894 where the United States was decimated by a “Great Flu” (sounds unprecedented) and the survivors built a patriarchal Christian society obsessed with childbirth.
After failing to provide an heir for her husband in a time where barren women are crucified or worse, Ada flees and finds herself in the company of the notorious Hole in the Wall Gang, led by an eccentric and enigmatic outlaw called The Kid. Together, the Gang embarks on a treacherous quest to build a safe haven for barren women, which includes robbin’, thievin’, and whatever mischief they can get up to with the law.
For lack of an active Goodreads account, let me just tell you that I breezed through this book. I could not put it down. It’s an easy 200-something pager over 12 chapters. Ada chronicles her training as a midwife under her mother’s tutelage, her relationships with her friends and her sisters, and her growing concern of how she’s unable to conceive a child. She’s tried everything, from scheduling intercourse with her husband, even laying with another man. When the town finds out, they pin a series of miscarriages on Ada, accusing her of witchcraft. She flees to a convent that informs her of an outlaw that once passed through their hallowed halls known for helping barren women. An outlaw called The Kid.
At first, we hear about the Kid as a man, but when Ada makes her way to the Hole in the Wall, she learns that The Kid is neither a man nor a woman, simply The Kid. But The Kid is nowhere near simple. As a former preacher, they have a way with words and are dripping with charisma. The whole Gang seems to have unwavering loyalty towards The Kid and to each other. Despite this, The Kid is often swept up in outbursts and episodes that could make their empowering words come off as delusions of grandeur.
The Kid was definitely patterned after Billy the Kid and Jesse James; two members of the real-life Hole in the Wall Gang. Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed a character under the same moniker in The Quick and the Dead when he was 21, the mean (average) age of his girlfriends. Young outlaws, at least to me, represent the Wild West’s unbridled room for potential. American expansion at a heavy cost. In DiCaprio’s case, it was his life. In Outlawed, it was at the expense of The Kid’s mental health and relationships.
Ada isn’t immediately accepted into the Gang either. Her place has to be earned, and her usefulness; proved. The Kid nicknames her ‘Doc’, as Ada makes her midwife training the focal point of her sales pitch to join up. She learns how each member found themselves here; brides on the run, witches, and criminals. Be it their queerness, races, and gender; they've found sanctuary-to-be in a lawless society still trying to rebuild itself. If there’s anything we’ve learned from this newsletter, it’s that I love a good ensemble. Especially if they steal things.
They’ve got names like Texas, News, Elzy, and Lo and are all skilled masters of disguise, sharpshooting, and horse wrangling. Ada finds fast friendship in Agnes Rose, the Gang’s latest addition before her arrival, a sweet and resourceful grifter. Not everyone takes to Doctor Ada, like The Kid’s former paramour Cassie who is adamant about keeping their circle small. They teach Ada how to move like a man; eat, sleep, breathe, walk and talk like a man. Most of their thievery they perform disguised as men. No one would ever suspect a band of barren women, let alone want to admit that they were robbed by a band of barren women.
Ada’s overarching quest is to seek out a master midwife and her knowledge of abortions. Whilst in her heart she ultimately wants to help others, Ada also desperately wants to satisfy her own curiosity. To find the ‘why’ behind her predicament, even if she never finds a cure. It’s oddly comforting to see someone question everything they believe right before your eyes, and even more so when they start scratching at the surface of their own self-assurance. Outlawed is something I wish was around when I was younger, in a time where all I knew were the Katniss Everdeens and assorted Shailene Woodley protagonists of the world. It doesn’t make me feel like the weight of the world has to rest on some chosen one’s shoulders, let alone my own.
Throughout my reading, I could not help but think about The Quick and the Dead. And as shameful it is for me to admit, it was probably because both protagonists were women. But Sharon Stone’s The Lady and Ada are two fundamentally different characters. Two very different women. The Lady returned to a town called Redemption seeking blood; vengeance against the man who murdered her father. Ada tries to find herself whilst fleeing for her life. Where The Lady is an experienced gunslinger, Ada has only begun learning the ropes. It’s what really set Outlawed apart for me; Ada didn’t step on to the Wild West fully formed, she was green and she made mistakes. It was in those mistakes that really showed me, as a reader, what she was really made of. The Quick and the Dead gave me style, flare, and the comfort of friends that know I’d like things before they show them to me. Outlawed made me feel hopeful for the state of fiction and its future.
I’m eternally fascinated by the Wild West. I find it such a compelling backdrop for storytelling, especially if you can deviate from its tradition of crusty old white men with an alternate reality like Outlawed or an outer space version. For a moment as I was writing this, I took the ‘West’ aspect of it all a little too seriously.
As someone of Eastern, specifically Southeastern, descent, anything to do with the West creates a little knot in my stomach. My childhood, education, sensibilities, and even the way I communicate have been heavily Westernised. I worry I am what we call a ‘banana’--yellow on the outside, white on the inside. I worry I’ve become a shell of the Asian woman I once was or am meant to be. Liking cowboy movies and books makes me feel a little bit more like a banana. However, I’ve taken it upon myself to be kind and not measure my ‘Asianness’ or proverbial ‘Eastern-ness’ against anyone else's. And who knows? Maybe someday I’ll write myself a cowboy role whose boots and spurs only I can fill.
Taylor Swift’s cowboy like me and The Curious Case of Cobb Vanth
Once again, I have taken it upon myself to connect some dots no one else asked for. Dots that only make sense in the nonsensical curation of information I have inside my head. A head full of Taylor Swift’s discography, and The Mandalorian, a show I started for Star Wars but stayed for Pedro Pascal.
I saw this fancam of Din Djarin, the titular Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) and Cobb Vanth (Timothy Olyphant), the Marshal of Mos Pelgo set to Taylor Swift’s cowboy like me from her latest album, evermore. I can no longer locate this fancam, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.
When I first heard cowboy like me, my mind immediately went to the heist romance film Focus (2015), starring Will Smith and Margot Robbie pre-Suicide Squad. The song follows, as the film goes, two thieves who fall in and out of love amidst their scamming. Taylor croons about how this couple questions the honesty in their love as they’re two con artists running schemes on rich people. Wondering if the version of themselves they are to each other is genuine.
One of my favourite lyrics in the song are “Now you hang from my lips like the gardens of Babylon / with your boots beneath my bed, forever is the sweetest con”. I hate to quote Ocean’s 8, but Sandy B echoed this exact sentiment when she said the only way to con a con-man is to be honest, a motif explored in Focus as well.
In the context of DinnCobb, neither one of them are thieves. Not in the traditional sense. But they’re both two sides of the same coin, at least in my opinion. cowboy like me tells the story of two very different people in the same line of work, they’re both “cowboys and bandits”, as Swift puts it. Cobb and Din have their armor in common, they put their differences aside to work together to get something from the other man. Both parties had an agenda underneath their joint slay killing a Krayt Dragon.
Cobb Vanth didn’t begin his journey as a marshal nor was he ever Mandalorian in the first place. We know for a fact that he bought Boba Fett’s armour that’s given him authority, from the Jawas, a species with a very irritating coincidence for me, a half-Javanese person. Din Djarin himself was a foundling that a Mandalorian clan took in. Both cowboys start lost, but somehow along the way have found each other, even if they’ll never cross paths again. Whether they began suspicious of each other or not, Din now has one more friend on Tatooine, a friend other than Amy Sedaris. I would like to be friends with Amy Sedaris, but I digress.
Personally, I’d like for them to cross paths again. I find Cobb Vanth much more interesting than the Jedi or the other Marshal who shall not be named. I want to see him run Mos Pelgo, try and solve other people’s problems, and wistfully look out onto the Tatooine sunset about The One That Got Away. The Mandalorian, not the Katy Perry song.
I’m not sure if any of that was coherent. But I am very passionate about Timothy Olyphant playing cowboys, especially if they’re space cowboys. I grew up watching him on Justified and Deadwood and his performance in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019) was a nice treat. If Disney+ were really about their bag, they would give Cobb Vanth more screen time. Better yet, his own spin-off. It’s only right. Let’s not waste a silver fox. Make haste, Disney+, I hear you’re down a Marshal anyway.
BREAKING: Petty Indonesian Bites Back at Digital Nomads
My first byline of the year is for Widget! A big thank you to Sam and Janet for being brilliant editors and helping me be funnier. Have a read here.
See you next week!