When I was a kid, my family frequently traveled overseas to visit relatives abroad. This was in the days before iPads, laptops and other electronic distractions; I don’t even recall movies ever being offered on those drop-down screens you used to see on planes before every traveler was provided with his or her own seatback entertainment center. (Admittedly, to save money, we frequently took charter flights or flew off-brand air carriers, where in-flight movies were probably considered unnecessary frills.)
Therefore, I had one option when it came to entertainment: I could bring a book. I remember going to Waldenbooks in the mall and scanning the shelves for the thickest possible spines. I needed a book that would last a long time, but also provide a super-sized entertainment value. I wanted epics, with exotic settings, life-and-death conflict, and romance, books like M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions and Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds.
Perhaps a nostalgia for the sweeping sagas of my youth led me to pick up Outlander, the enormously popular, and just plain enormous, time-travel romance, for a recent overseas trip. (I got the Kindle edition, not the paperback—I appreciate the technical innovations of the 21st century.) I feel like 16-year-old me would have loved Outlander; 2016 me was rather lukewarm, though I did make it through the entire thing. It took me about two weeks; I started it in Stockholm, and it kept me company through trips to Amsterdam and Paris, before I finally finished it in a Copenhagen airport hotel. I’m unlikely to pick up other books in the series (there are currently eight), though I’d consider watching the TV show if I had the Starz pay-cable channel.
The best thing about Outlander is that it has a strong and resourceful female heroine, Claire Beauchamp, a 20th century nurse who inadvertently winds up in 18th century Scotland after time-traveling through a standing stone. Claire is English, but was in Scotland on a second honeymoon of sorts with her husband Frank. World War II has just ended, and she and Frank were apart for most of it, so they were just getting reacquainted when Claire finds herself in a very different time period. It was smart of Gabaldon to start the book in the postwar era, which was one of hardship and deprivation; the only things Claire really misses are hot baths and modern medicine. Imagine a 2016 woman sent back to 1743—I’m not sure I could function without a smartphone, a good sunscreen, speedy modes of transportation, well-stocked grocery stores, and (dare I say it) modern feminine-hygiene products.
Through a series of events, Claire winds up married to Jamie Fraser, a younger man who was a virgin on their wedding night but soon becomes an ardent and attentive lover. (There are a lot of sex scenes in this book.) At first, she tries hard to return to the standing stone to see if she can time-travel back to 1945, but eventually she realizes that she loves Jamie much more than she ever loved her 20th century husband, who is not nearly so rugged and sexy as the 18th century Scot. Jamie is also a wounded man, literally and figuratively, and becomes more so over the course of the book; Claire has to nurse him back to health several times, though he also saves her life a time or two.
I guess there is something appealing about the fantasy of escaping to a more uncomplicated time, but I kept thinking that despite having a hunky 18th century babe at my disposal, I’d still opt to return to the mid-1940s in a heartbeat. Life was nasty, brutish and short in 1743! It was an especially rough time for women, who were essentially considered property and died in childbirth at an alarming rate. Claire survives and eventually thrives, but I think for the vast majority of us, that time period may be a fun place to read about, but thank goodness we don’t live there.