Why “Outlander” Appeals to Millions

The Outlander book series by Diana Gabaldon, and the Starz television series (now in its 5th season) have garnered millions of followers. In my previous post I shared my own personal journey through the world created in Gabaldon’s books. I conjectured why it won my heart like nothing I’ve experienced as a reader. I wonder, why is it such a phenomenon now, 27 years later? [Diana’s first novel, Outlander, was released in 1991.]

Critics might chalk it up to escapism in a world gone mad. I believe it’s something else.

Key elements infused throughout the stories are 1) the possibility of creating a new order of things; 2) the kind of personal freedom Americans believe they have but which in fact has been eroded since sometime around the industrialization of America. Our freedoms are regulated or qualified to the point of handcuffing almost any endeavor unless you are rich in which case you can evade regulation.

In Gabaldon’s world of Outlander, we experience lawless times in the nascent Republic, and times of terrible oppression in Scotland. The author does not sugarcoat any of the times, but rather plunges readers into the horrors of slavery, violence against women, and brutal policies imposed on the poor and oppressed. Diana’s novels are not for the faint at heart nor are they romantic novels in the strict definition of that genre. Diana’s wave is so huge in the book world that it has created its own genre.

Diana Gabaldon possesses a sense of humor; she includes chapter titles such as “Meanwhile, back at the ranch , , ,” to keep readers engaged in her complex plots. Yet, like a deep current in the troubled waters of time – from book 1 to book 8 – there is an abiding theme and what I would describe as a ‘force’.  The theme, in my opinion, is “we are all in this together” and the force emanates from this idea: true love lasts through the slings and arrows of human history, and it is the only real thing that defines the human pageant across time.

The Theme: We are all in this together.

The books are about family. We see it first in the Highlander clans at a time when survival depended upon that unit of cohesion among people. Then we see it in frontier times in American history with pioneers, and among colonies. The major characters of Jamie Fraser and Claire Fraser form the warp while secondary characters, children, and animals form the weft or woof. The hues and texture are provided by historical events and circumstances.

The Force of Gabaldon’s Story: Demonstration of love that is immutable.

Over and over we experience the love of Jamie and Claire, of parents and children, of brothers and sisters, of comrades in arms, of communities and of nations. Gabaldon shows us which ones last and which ones don’t; we are left to consider why and why not in ever changing scenarios. Passionate love, filial love, maternal love, brotherly love, and patriotism are all in there in their fullness: strong, vulnerable, imperfect and humanity’s signature trait. Diana sharpens our understanding of immutable love by contrasting it in darkness: jealousy, resentment, pure hate, unhinged violence, or the worst perhaps — negligence.

The answer to my question [why does Outlander appeal to millions today?] seems obvious only now that I have read the entire series twice and listened to interviews with the author. This long developing narrative and its unforgettable characters provide a way forward in the complex, otherwise discouraging world humanity has created for itself. Think about that: 1) We are all in this together (connoting we are responsible to each other); 2) Love, the greatest force in the world, is immutable (it can’t be changed or touched by any force no matter how diabolical or egregious).

The stories show the impact of our actions, or lack there of, and the fact that history is made together. It is counter intuitive if you think about it. Is true freedom being alone to do what you please? Or is true freedom something achieved only together (as families, as groups, as nations, as a world community)?

Finally, I think we experience Diana Gabaldon’s own journey to answer that question. We time travel with her characters jumping from historical periods and back. She probes to understand those times and ours even as it is unfolding today, at this very moment. Will we, her contemporaries, choose love over hate, and work in a family or community to provide a home, a town, a nation that is worth fighting for?

I would love your comments on what you think makes Outlander such a compelling body of work.



The Remarkable Diana Gabaldon

When I was at work at Arizona State University, little did I know that I was crossing paths with a person who would soon become an internationally known author with a fan phenomenon that continues to grow. Diana Gabaldon is author of the Outlander book series.

The first book which set off the chain reaction, Outlander, was published in 1991. Probably I felt the Earth tremble but didn’t know what it was. I was crossing a river of my own, thinking about writing a book, but didn’t get around to it until 2003. Literally, I crossed the Colorado and would eventually find my way to Phoenix and Arizona State University still clueless of the Gabaldon earthquake. Her eight books have sold over 35 million copies in 26 countries and are printed in 23 languages.

Outlander was a phenomenal success; 7 sequels rolled-on-out into eager fans hands all emanating from an incredible mind — with the 9th in the series due in 2020. See Diana’s website for updates. http://www.dianagabaldon.com/

Diana is a generous writer, sharing more information with her readers than any other author I’ve ever read, and actively engaging them on her website, in literary groups, her blog, and more, answering questions and engaging readers the world over. She has also published tomes called Outlander Companions that give readers a lot of background information on history, medicine, time-travel, etc. (Well, she was professionally a science historian and well trained to record and report with deep attention to detail, and also the weird little anomalies in human affairs.)

I’d heard about the TV adaptation from my daughter in law but didn’t get around to watching it until the 4th season, which in turn sent me on a wild adventure watching all the previous episodes and season, then buying and reading the entire series of books. I’ve started to reread book 5 and 6 in anticipation of the 5th TV season on Starz.

What prompted me to watch the Outlander TV series was a novel I was drafting about a young doctor whose mother’s family emigrated to the U.S. from Wales. [This is partially my own heritage along with Scottish and Irish ancestors who emigrated, and traveled down into the Appalachians where they settled.] My character  is an intuitive who wishes to learn more about natural remedies and practices of her mother’s home country especially after she has just finished a long residency and is deciding on her path in the practice of medicine.

In the fall of 2018 I was taking a course in Arthurian Legends, and reading about Welsh and Scottish history when I happened to stream Outlander to see what it was that had millions binging on Starz.

Diana’s mind is vast. That is the best way I can explain it. Matched with master storytelling which from all I’ve read is a natural gift, I could not stop reading, and when one book was finished I felt like my oxygen mask had been yanked from my face. I literally crawled into the closest book store gasping for the sequel! Later I ordered ahead so that there would not be days of blue lipped waiting. This was behavior never observed in myself before. I’ve become a fan of both Diana and now the Outlander cast members and writers of the adaptations.

What is it that has seized my mind and heart with such power, joy, and keen interest? I cannot express it yet but its something like this: characters that lift my spirit reminding me that we can be better than we think we can, and we can end up doing good even when we just stumble into it. It’s about intent. It’s also the story of a great love that stands the test of time and tragedy and never seems to be shredded or dulled by it. It’s the story of my family’s emigration, it’s the story of our nation’s early history, it’s about science (which I love and have worked in for my career) and it’s about a woman whose mind and skills are challenged to help others.

Finally, Diana has created a woman, Claire, who is a sort of hero for me and many women in even this modern day, maybe more so in our time. She says what she thinks, she never goes back on her word, she is imperfect and vulnerable, and she wants to be loved through and through by her man. Diana has created that man for her in Jamie Fraser who matches Claire’s strengths and provides a protective and totally absorbing love affair whose flame is inexhaustible.

And there is lots of humor! Thank you Diana for making fun of us along the way. If we can’t laugh then it IS a tragic affair, this life we all strive to live and make some meaning out of. She possesses a great sense of humor and puts her characters in numerous embarrassing situations.

I find the books healing in a way, like a balm for my tattered soul — tattered by the banal world I’m living in, the broken hearts, the disappointed people, the loss of a framework in which to live in this fractured time. The story is stabilizing. The people care about and love each other and even when the way is not clear, the characters choose a safe way forward. And to think, Diana is still rolling-out their lives,  showing us a way forward. The fact that Claire and other characters time-travel adds a mystery to it all and opens up unique possibilites for the author to explore and compare historical times and mores, and ask interesting questions such as, “Can history be changed?”

What can I tell you. I am a goner. Diana Gabaldon has captured my imagination and my heart for the time being. And I am grateful.