A loner on the run is a Western literary genre trope, but Toronto poet and novelist Gil Adamson transforms it wholly in Ridgerunner, the follow-up to her debut novel, The Outlander. While the first book is a character study of nineteen-year-old Mary Boulton, a woman on the run from her brothers-in-law after she murders her husband, Ridgerunner is set in 1917, over a decade after the world of The Outlander. We follow William Moreland as he travels the North American west with clothing, weapons, and food stolen from park rangers in and around Banff on both sides of the border, across Alberta and Montana. On a mission to collect as much money as he can for his twelve-year-old son, Jack, William takes refuge in the sprawling landscape, quietly waiting for break-and-enter opportunities.
Meanwhile, his son plots his own escape from Sister Beatrice, the nun his father asked to care for him. She calls Jack “Charles” and refuses to share news of his father’s progress, ineffectually attempting to remake the child in her own image. Jack becomes a quiet, solitary boy, who keeps his thoughts to himself, much like his parents William and Mary. His journey of individuation propels the plot, deepening the tender relationship between father and son. Though Mary has died, her presence adds to their purpose. When Jack discovers his father has visited his house, he tracks his footsteps around the bedroom window: “The man was smallish, with a long step to him, toes straight on. And he had tapped nails into his boot heels, the little nailheads forming letters: an M for the left foot, a B for the right. It was something his father had always done, to keep on the good side of luck. Mary Boulton.”
Adamson tugs at the heartstrings with description too, as both William and Jack traverse the Prairies: “A barn owl melted out of the dark and alighted on a gable of the house. They gazed unblinkingly at each other until the owl tilted off and moved without sound to the west.” In moments like this, Adamson gifts us with silence and stillness, reminding us of the real beauty of Ridgerunner: its characters – all outcasts – seeking to live life on their own terms, buoyed by their unfailing love for each other.
In the twin arcs of William’s parenthood and Jack’s coming-of-age, Ridgerunner asks us to embrace the unpredictability of its characters, which makes this novel sing right through its shocking climax. Ridgerunner is a rare novel that makes no compromises for its solitary rebels, whose capacity for love encourages us to recognize our power and frailty as human beings – how our lives can be transformed by a grand, transcendent love, even if it is for others. Adamson’s Ridgerunner is the kind of book that forges the possible from the impossible, despite age and borders. It’s a hearty, brave novel that challenges us to live life on our own terms.
by Gil Adamson
House of Anansi Press
Published February 2, 2021
Shazia Hafiz Ramji’s writing has appeared in Best Canadian Poetry 2019, Maisonneuve, and is forthcoming in Event and Canthius. Shazia was named as a “writer to watch” by the CBC and her poetry and prose have been nominated for the 2020 Pushcart Prizes. She is the author of Port of Being, a finalist for the 2019 Vancouver Book Award, BC Book Prizes (Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize), Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and winner of the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. She is a co-editor for Watch Your Head, an anthology on the climate crisis and is at work on the fourth draft of her autofictional novel.