The three of us forged down the slick, cobbled Royal Mile in Edinburgh, our coats soaked from the driving rain. On the advice of friends, we ducked through a small “close” – a brick archway – away from the crowded historic street, slipping down the steps and into the Jolly Judge, a small pub in the center of this historic city.
A fire crackled. My daughter ordered a pint for herself and one for her dad. Soon, warm soup and hot pressed sandwiches made it to our table, and I felt for a few moments as if I’d traveled through time, to the 18th century, if I closed my eyes to the free “pintware” (Wi-Fi) sign in the corner.
On a lark, we’d traveled with our daughter to Edinburgh, a city I’d only read about in books. Not history books, mind you, but in a series of novels I’d refused to read when my friend AB offered the first one to me.
“You’ll thank me,” she had said about 10 years ago, handing me a 600-page tome called “Outlander.” “It’s set in Scotland.”
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Not since I’d read “The Flame and the Flower” in high school had I bothered with historical romances – neither does AB. Check out her bookshelf and it’s filled with classics – right now she’s reading “Moby Dick” – Clancy spy novels, books on master gardening, the latest biography. But historic romance? I couldn’t imagine it.
But I relented, sure I’d find it another bodice buster, as I call them, not worth the time it would take to read even 100 pages.
But within those 100 pages – just about the time Claire, a World War II British nurse on her second honeymoon, falls through some standing stones just outside Inverness and ends up in the hands of her 20th century husband’s 18th century evil ancestor, until she’s rescued by a group of Scottish highlanders – I was all in.
You’re following me, right?
And in I’ve been, for another seven books and thousands of pages, reading the series two or three times. Time not wasted, though. I’ve learned not only about Scotland’s history, but that of my own Tar Heel State. Is it irreverent to say that I know more North Carolina history from “The Drums of Autumn” (book four) than from two semesters in William Powell’s N.C. history class at Carolina? (If he’d added a kilted Highlander to his lessons, maybe I’d have paid more attention.)
Most of my friends have read at least the first book about outspoken Claire and her Highlander, James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser, though some have lost interest.
“They fight and make up (the sex scenes are pretty good),” one friend told me, “but it’s the same thing in every book.”
Well, maybe, but it’s also the story of a marriage, of loyalty and family, of setting out your place in the world in circumstances you didn’t expect. And about that internal struggle we all face – though not from traveling through time – of how to use our gifts to change our corner of the world.
When STARZ announced a television series based on the books, AB and I were skeptical. How could anyone possibly cast the leads, so clearly drawn by author Diana Gabaldon? And yet they have, in a smart, funny, compelling story – from the actors and the music, to Scottish history, its Gaelic and its plaids – Scotland itself starring as a main character.
I’m not alone in my obsession. “Outlander” boasts close to 1 million Facebook fans. My sister hasn’t read the books, but she’s hooked on the series. My 87-year-old mother has read all eight books and wants more. (Read them again, I told her, and again.) My daughter is a fan, which brings us back to that pub just off the Royal Mile just two weeks ago.
We’re in the middle of Droughtlander – between seasons one and two, when there is nothing left but to pick up the books again. Or visit Scotland yourself. So on a cool and rainy November day, my daughter and I sat in an old pub, imagining Claire and Jamie in a setting just like this, having hot stew, reunited in this very city after 20 years apart. Though they are fictitious folk, for a few minutes we traveled with them, raising our glasses for a toast. Sláinte!
Susan Byrum Rountree is a Raleigh writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.