Ties That Unbind

Reviewed by Jenny Kerber

Ridgerunner is Gil Adamson’s follow-up to her 2007 best-selling historical novel The Outlander. The new book is set approximately twelve years after the end of the previous novel, and revisits some of the same characters amidst the Alberta and Montana Rockies and foothills. It is not essential to have read the earlier book to enjoy Ridgerunner, but it certainly helps to fill in some of the backstory. Whereas The Outlander focuses primarily on Mary Boulton, an early-twentieth-century fugitive on the run after killing her husband, Ridgerunner portrays the aftermath of her encounter with William Moreland, a loner she meets in the mountains when at her lowest ebb, near death from exposure and starvation. Their initial union is brief, but these two elusive figures eventually find one another again and settle for long enough to have a child and build a life hidden away in the mountains, combining their outdoor skills with just enough extra cash from William’s thieving and Mary’s periodic sewing work in Banff to provide for their basic needs. Almost no one knows where they live, and that is the way they wish to keep it.


The title of Adamson’s sequel Ridgerunner initially points most directly to the figure of William. In the wake of Mary’s untimely death, he must provide long-term financial security for their son, and in early sections of the novel readers join him on a rambling series of thefts on either side of the 49th parallel. William is a version of the daring Western outlaw, living by his wits and frustrating the authorities, especially the park rangers whose cabins he routinely raids for supplies. However, the main focal character here is really Mary and William’s son Jack, an adventuresome teen whom William leaves behind in the growing town of Banff under the care and surveillance of a 58-year-old nun, Emelia Cload. Jack’s early years spent deep in the Rockies have made him whip-smart and as restless as a young goat; he chafes under the restrictions and fineries of the nun’s house—with some justification, it turns out—and longs to rejoin his father. Eventually, he escapes and turns fugitive himself, fleeing the nun’s capture while her desire to repossess him takes several increasingly sinister turns. As with several of Adamson’s other key characters, there are many more layers to Emelia than it initially appears, and the author pulls them back, piece by piece, to reach a surprising conclusion.


As in The Outlander, which features the famous Frank Slide of 1903, wherein a coal tunnel collapse buried much of the village of Frank, Alberta and killed nearly 100 people, here too Adamson incorporates rich historical detail in crafting her settings. For instance, we hear about the eviction of the Stoney Nakoda People from what would become Banff National Park, the conversion of the hamlet of Laggan into Lake Louise, and the use of POW labour from the Castle Mountain Internment Camp to build crucial tourism infrastructure during the First World War. The theme of capture thus functions at the individual level when it comes to figures like the Ridgerunner William Moreland or his son, but Adamson also widens her lens to contemplate the difficulty of struggling against containment when such measures are systemically applied and based on racial or ethnic difference. Despite the National Parks’ reputation as sites of leisurely escape, their origins were far from pristine or innocent, and Adamson’s narrative helps lay bare the region’s historical underbelly. For those who worked in the internment camps under abusive and often very cold conditions, the Rockies were a place to seek escape from—yet in the novel the POWs do not possess the same detailed mental maps as the Ridgerunner to help them figure out how to survive in this craggy, unforgiving world.


Throughout, Adamson’s use of historical detail makes for highly immersive reading. The smells, sounds, sights, tastes, and textures of the Rockies come alive, whether in the greasy traces of a two-day-old campfire, the particular carriage of a shaggy-hided horse, or the “protracted groan” of a dog sighing into relaxation (126). One hint of Adamson’s background as a poet is her frequent conversion of unconventional nouns into verbs—for example, a character “seins” small details from memory (423), and a dog “skirmishes” the trunk of a tree up which bear cubs have climbed (288). This technique mostly adds to the text’s freshness of perception but can occasionally distract, just as the lack of the definite article in the novel’s title registers somewhat dissonantly to the ear; yes, the title encourages readers to consider parallels between William Moreland and his son, but at the expense of a pleasing linguistic symmetry with The Outlander.


Overall, Ridgerunner is a tremendously outdoor book that seekers of adventure narratives will enjoy, even as it also carefully attends to the often unconventional shapes of frontier familial and domestic life, wherein forms of care do not always manifest or emerge from the sources we might expect. For instance, although William Moreland is the biological father in the text, he is at best an intermittent presence in his son’s life. Instead, many of the practical aspects of looking after Jack when the boy flees from Banff back into the woods are assumed by the woodsman Sampson, an older Nakoda man and former tracker who is good at keeping secrets and balancing care with a respect for a young man’s growing independence. Meanwhile, the nun Emelia Cload initially seems to provide Jack with all the necessary tools for a prosperous, cultivated life, yet she shows poor understanding of Jack’s yearning nature. While most of the novel’s key characters could be described as outcasts, some prove to be much more comfortable with this status than others; in the end, Adamson shows keen insight into the comforts that come from intermittent intimacy, the emotional strength required to let loved ones come and go, and the freedom of loosened tethers.


This review “Ties That Unbind” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 250 (2022): 178-179.

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