Scotland the Brave

I'm currently rereading Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, which is an amazing historical fiction/fantasy (there's time travel to get the historical aspect) that also—yes Sarah, yes Maraia and friends—contains a passionate romance, depicted in bodice-ripping detail. That's not what's important, though. It's the carefully crafted story, told in thousands of pages of detail. It's the vividness of the characters, their strength, their relationships, their appeal. Well. Some of them elicit revulsion, or simple anger, but not the protagonists. I gobbled up Outlander, the first book, in just a few days; Dragonfly in Amber took me much longer, because I knew, as Claire and Jamie Fraser both knew but were hoping could be changed, that Bonnie Prince Charlie would lead Scotland to the Battle of Culloden, the massacre of the clans and the subsequent terrorizing of the Highlands. I didn't want to get the declaration of war, and I certainly didn't want to get to April 16th, even though I knew there were multiple sequels, even though I'd read those sequels.

So the very, very basic plot is that Claire and her husband, reunited after World War II is over, are taking a second honeymoon in Scotland when Claire, collecting plant samples at a circle of standing stones on the feast day of Beltane, accidentally travels two hundred years into the past (it's always two hundred years in the fairy stories). She ends up marrying Jamie for protection, they fall madly in love, everything is hard/great. When she tells him where she's from, he takes her back to the stones, but she can't leave the love of her life. Blah blah lots of problems, the biggest of which is that Claire's first husband was a historian, so she knows about the Rising of (17)'45 to come, and that it is doomed to fail. Can you change history? They try, but I don't think I'm giving too much away when I say that in the end, all of Scotland gets punished for the ambition and pigheadedness of Prince Charles Stuart.

The last big series I read was also centered around Scotland, although it took a long time to get there, from Belgium to Trebizond to the Gold Coast of Africa to Austria to Iceland to Poland to Georgia but always back to Scotland. The desires of the royal family (also Stuarts), far off and remote from the great powers of early Renaissance Europe, to catch up to their rivals. The attempt to take England—with or without support from France. The cold winters in Edinburgh. It's much the same a couple hundred years later.

I'm really thinking most about the cold winters in Edinburgh right now, boring as that may sound. And the winters in the Highlands, harsher still. At the start of the third Outlander book, our fair hero, after seven years living in a hole on his own estate, has one of his tenants give him up so that his people can collect the price on his head. He's sent to Ardsmuir prison, in the north of northern Scotland, where a new commander has just arrived as well. To be posted at Ardsmuir prison, in the far north of the godforsaken highlands, on a peninsula jutting out into the cold, cold sea, is a punishment. The landscape is composed of forbidding crags and treacherous bogs. Communication with England is slow. Worse yet, there's no Society with a capital S out there, just a small Scottish village, the usually drunk soldiers, the prisoners, and loads of whisky—cheap for an English soldier willing to use the power of his red coat.

In some silly way, this made me think of my good friend Emma's mother, who moved from the proper, civilized, beautifully seaside East Coast out to savage, grey, flat, boring Michigan right after getting married and has been stuck living here ever since. People in Michigan have a sick fascination with the weather. People in Michigan get sinus infections. Everything is wrong. I, obviously, think this is all nonsense, although last winter was horrible and the rainy fall is horrible, et cetera et cetera, but Michigan is also my home, and I like it, and I think there are great things about it. But it certainly lacks the romance and excitement of old Scotland. I know part of it is that when I'm looking for dramatic, engaging novels, I'm usually looking for something pre-1800. Michigan barely existed then. Our written history is shorter. But the French came long before the colonizing Americans hopped over the Appalachians. There were the Objibwa and Ottawa and Potawatomi. Where are our exciting novels? The Young Voyageur: An Exciting Historical Novel of Mackinac, which Emma and I were forced to read in fifth grade (assuming it was part of the Michigan curriculum and not the Explorers curriculum), is definitely not it. That book enraged us. I don't really know why, besides that the text was printed green, and it was probably boring, but I know that it is for children, not compelling, and I will probably never open its cover again. I did read some interesting things about voyageurs and how they were the first people to penetrate the continent and all, but that was just in some history/memoirs about how railways built America and Canada. They were great books (I liked the Canadian one better), but somewhat lacking in excitement, and the author skipped Michigan altogether. (Sure he traveled every track in the country, of course the ever-late Wolverine line from Chicago to Detroit doesn't exist, and I haven't made my way to Detroit alone since crashing my car. Nope.)

The last book set in Michigan that I both remember reading and remember liking—and I'll admit that I may have forgotten something because there must have been something in the intervening decade—was That Wild Berries Should Grow by Gloria Whelan (who I think my mom knew somehow at some point, weirdly), but that was in fifth grade, and about a little girl growing up during the Depression, and that doesn't really fit what I'm looking for.

Excitement. History. Romance (not necessarily bodice-ripping!). Strong characters, strong plot. Plus Michigan. Does it exist?


Jane said...

I just wrote a really long comment that didn't post.

Summary: The Watsons Go To Birmingham 1963, Ordinary People (books that reference Michigan, no bodice-ripping); all I learned in elementary school Michigan history is the term "mound-building"

Marisa said...

Oh right, The Watsons Go to Birmingham was great!

We learned all. about. the explorers. We made this horrible little 2-D-globe-thing of a ton of different circular maps of the Great Lakes and had to trace out the routes each explorer took on them, but our textbook didn't tell us a lot of them and it was SO DUMB.

Brianna said...

Have you read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides? It takes place in Detroit (and Grosse Pointe!) and includes a lot of history about the area. There's not a ton of romance, but it's very, very interesting and a great read. I highly recommend it!

Marisa said...

Oh yeah, I thought of Middlesex, although it's not old-timey (ha), which is where I think there's really a hole to be filled. I borrowed it from a friend in high school and never read it. I was intimidated but how long she said it felt...not that I'm usually one to be intimidated by book lenght! I think I finally gave it back to her this year, after my boyfriend but not I read it. Maybe I should ask for it back.

Cooper said...

I keep meaning to read something by Jim Harrison. I hear he's the best Michigan novelist, but his time period is more contemporary. Post-1960s, I think.

There's also a fun blog on Detroit before Ford. Did you know Detroit had a 50-cent tax on dogs in 1805? Now you do:

Maraia said...

Haha! I was actually thinking about the Outlander series recently and how I should give it another try.

Marisa said...


Whoa. Too strong?