Of Time and Travel and Big, Braw Laddies

Still image from the Starz Outlander series
Still image from the Starz Outlander series

The schoolmarm and the doctor’s wife: that was me for a little while, at a wonderful little canal town living history site. We had just moved; no higher ed jobs jumped out at me, so for a year or so, I taught as an adjunct at a college or two–and as the schoolmarm, fully got up in a calico dress, with lace-trimmed collar and respectable bonnet, in a canal-era one-room schoolhouse. My ‘students’ drew on slates; we talked about yummy lunch treats toted in the mouse-proof lidded metal buckets children were wont to carry to school in the 1800’s. Visitors were appalled to learn that, back in canal days, lard sandwiches were regular lunch fare in this neck of the woods . They were shocked, too, to learn that lefties often had their left hands lashed firmly to their immobile desks with rope; the left hand being guided by the dark side, it was much preferred to make children use their rights.

As the doctor’s wife, I sometimes gave tours of the ‘company’ spaces upstairs in the august doctor’s house, showing off fancy, imported things, like the vintage wallpaper that was a true luxury in a frontier town and the glass flycatcher that sat in the dining room to keep the pests away from dinner. But more often in that role, I cooked. I would come in early, before the park opened, to get the fire going and the cornbread mixed, to truss the chicken on the string from which it would spin all day–kind of an early rotisserie method–above the fire in the broad, deep hearth.

On those cooking days, I entered through the front door of the doctor’s house, which was key-locked (the other doors were bolted) and went down to the below-stairs cooking area through a door in the main hall. One morning, decked out in my doctor’s wife garb, I let myself into the house, pulled the door shut behind me, and opened the door to the lower level. It was a gray, quiet morning, and there was no one else in the house–except for the woman standing in the old kitchen. I saw, clearly, her copper and cream striped ankle-length skirt and her tightly fitted rust-colored bodice; her head was obscured from my view by the placement of the door. A phrase dropped wholesale into my mind: She has cream-colored kid boots on.

Awfully dressy for someone in the kitchen, I thought, and then I had a strong sense of impropriety–of peeping when I shouldn’t peep. I softly closed the door, and took a long breath.

When I opened the door, again, of course she was gone.

I cannot explained that little sighting–a whisper of a day gone by? An early morning waking dream? But I can say this: there were pockets of what felt like bottomless cold in that home–that doctor’s home where a runaway slave’s infant had died of a terrible infection picked up during the horrible flight up the Underground Railroad. The little canal town was a known stop on that Railroad. Something… we who worked in that house would think uneasily, and there were rooms and spots we didn’t like to be in. But the lovely copper-colored outfit held no terror or fear. It was like an echo from another day. I had some scattered thoughts about the possibility of time wrinkling, of veils lifting for a moment to show us another time.

Maybe that’s why I can so easily accept the premise of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, Book One in a time travel series set in Scotland. After seeing the copper striped skirt, I’m not unwilling to admit that time could somehow fold in on itself.

My mother was a Scot, and my father was mostly Irish–we all know those Celts are fey. But Gabaldon tells her tale in such a down to earth and lusty way, it doesn’t seem particularly New-Age-y or supernatural. I have no trouble with the ‘through the stones’ explanation. Those henges–they must be there for something.

My one-dollar bargain
My one-dollar bargain

I’m reading Outlander in a kind of backwards time travel, myself; I picked up Dragonfly in Amber, the second book in the series, way back when. It was a new book on a library shelf; it was about Scots and standing stones and traveling in time. Well, why not? I thought, and thoroughly enjoyed the book,–although Gabaldon does have a penchant, in parts, for portraying graphic, evil violence. She draws her people well, though; I’ve stayed with her through the whole series, and just this Fall, I bought and read Written in My Own Heart’s Blood. I was pleased with myself; I had kept up with the series, with Claire and Jamie, all the way through, not missing a single volume. I’d be all caught up, I thought, and then I could watch the series that Starz was going to show. It was getting some very good buzz. I even liked the way the actors selected to play Claire and Jamie looked.

And then I realized that somehow I had missed reading Outlander itself. Dragonfly and the books that followed referred to previous events, filled in blanks with reminiscences; they were fine books to read on their own. But I was missing a big hunk of Claire’s and Jamie’s stories.

When I spied Outlander on the clearance shelf–1.00! (It was right before the Starz series caught fire)–I grabbed it. I put it on my ‘Soon, Compadre’ stack of books. You know how that goes–other books, bossy ones, come barging in, and they just won’t shut up until you read them. I tended to the bossy books all fall.

Then one of my sharp young colleagues, Emily, mentioned that she owned the Outlander television series and she liked it very much. She was going to have a little marathon showing for those of us interested, but she’d wait, she said, until another young colleague, Kayla, finished the book.

Uh oh, I thought; and Outlander became my first priority, after reading the Divergent series my son so kindly gifted me with this Christmas. Gift books, earnestly given, have to take precedence, but having enjoyed that series,  I am now halfway into the world of Outlander and glad that I dove in.

Gabldon’s people are believable, quirky and flawed, temperamental, and sometimes foolish. But the good guys are really good–there’s inherent decency here, loyalty and kindness, true courage, infinite caring. Although she balances that decency at times with truly unspeakable actions of black, damnable cads, I like, for the most part, her view of humanity. She writes a mean love scene, too, sprinkling those throughout all the books.

What a hero, that Jamie–tall and broad and brave and braw. Who wouldn’t want such a devoted lover and stalwart protector? And Claire–obviously this is a woman worthy of such dedication.

My mother, as I mentioned, was a Scot, and that meant of course, that all her family was too. And, while I’m willing to accept the fact of a tall, rugged Jamie, the Scots men of my acquaintance were not that. The Scots men I knew, while obviously virile–just look at the number of kiddos produced!–were more—hmmmphmmmm–short. And roundish, mostly, with twinkly eyes and shiny pates. Workers for sure, and bold ones, too–and they did indeed love a wee glass of the good stuff.

I thought of my Uncle Donald when I read the chapter (19; “The Waterhorse”) where Claire comes face to face with the Loch Ness monster. Uncle Donald told us stories about seeing Nessie, too; we’d listen to him goggle-eyed while my mother snorted in the background. She had fallen for those stories years before. He told us, too, Donald did, that he was out playing on the moor one time, with his brothers and his cousins, and that an eagle came, snatched a cousin, and flew away. Never seen again, he swore. It wasn’t his favorite cousin, said my uncle, so he wasn’t TOO upset. I gasped, and I honed my gullibility, I guess, long before Gabaldon wrote Outlander.

And I love Gabaldon’s lovely descriptions of rustic, rural Scotland, but I temper that, remembering my Grand Aunt Jessica’s homesickness. She told my mother, time and again, that if there was a bridge across the Atlantic, a bridge from the States to Scotland, she’d crawl across it to get back to her home. But of course there wasn’t, and the families were pocket-wrenching poor. No money for trips when kids needed college–and ALL the kids needed college; that was never a question. But still she pined, my Grand Aunt, for the smells and the sights of home,and finally, finally–kids grown, one husband buried,— she was able to go back.

My mother waited anxiously to hear about the visit. All Grand Aunt Jessica said was this: “I couldn’t wait to get back there. And then I couldn’t wait to get home.”

‘Home’ had suddenly switched sides of the Atlantic, when the lilting rustic memories translated into lack of central heating and a well in the town square for your water. She wasn’t fond of the winds roaring off the ocean, the haggis, or the lack of a supermarket.

So I read Outlander with real fascination; I’m engrossed and involved. I love the romance of Claire and Jamie; I despise the cruelty and excess of Black Jack Randall; I accept completely the beautiful descriptions of the countryside. I withhold judgement of the comfort provided, though, by the quaint beauty of the ancient towns till I can walk through them myself.

I hope that day is not far off. Meantime, I’m getting my Scottish fix from Outlander.


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