There’s nae doubt that legions of readers will be raising a wee dram or two to celebrate publication of “Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone,” the latest installment of Diana Gabaldon’s sweeping Outlander saga. The series began with the eponymous novel in 1991, followed by eight sequels (including this one), four related novels and several novellas and short stories, adding up to over 12,000 pages. There’s also a graphic novel and a musical, but who’s counting?
Newcomers to the ongoing story, along with those only familiar with the hugely successful TV series (Season 6 will air next year), might be forgiven for sneaking an extra tot of single malt to fortify them for the new book, which clocks in at 928 pages. The title references an old Celtic custom of telling bees important family news — a death, birth, marriage — so that they can carry it to the next hive or swarm. In this case, the bees might also bear word of murders, kidnappings, unexpected births, betrayals or numerous deceits, along with an ordination and some casual blackmail, just to liven things up.
The novel opens in the summer of 1779, on Fraser’s Ridge in the North Carolina Colony. Jamie Fraser, Highland Scot and paterfamilias of a large and complexly related clan, has settled there with his time-traveling wife, Claire. Claire is an outlander (a stranger) from the mid-20th century who, after many years living in the 18th century, has mostly adapted to life among folks unfamiliar with penicillin, automobiles or Dr. Seuss. A World War II British Army nurse, Claire now uses her skills as a healer to tend to the many residents of Fraser’s Ridge. These include Brianna, her daughter fathered by Jamie but raised in the 20th century by Claire and her former husband, as well as Brianna’s husband, Roger, and their children, additional outliers from the future. The extended Fraser clan also includes children born out of wedlock, stepchildren, adopted children (and adults), along with lovers and spouses acquired in the decades since Jamie and Claire first met. The book contains three Outlander family trees, which are somewhat helpful.
Still, it’s been seven years since Gabaldon’s previous novel: even hardcore fans may feel as though they’ve been thrown into the midst of a huge family reunion, only half-recalling who’s who and why they should remember them. The first few hundred pages of “Go Tell the Bees,” while well-told, move slowly, as Gabaldon reacquaints us with not just Claire and Jamie but their far-flung network of family, friends and frenemies, some of them now on opposing sides of the U.S. War of Independence. A new name or character is introduced on almost every page, and few escape without a backstory.
A Jacobite rebel before he emigrated to America, Jamie sides with the Patriots but is tolerant of his Loyalist tenants on the Ridge. Yet things heat up as the conflict grows more dire and closer to home. There are stirring accounts of the sieges of Charles Town (now Charleston, S.C.) and Savannah; excursions to Philadelphia and Upstate New York, with a memorable sojourn among the Mohawks; and appearances by such historical figures as Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, whom Roger (raised in the 20th century) finds “Not quite what the romantic moniker ‘Swamp Fox’ conjured up.” Coats are turned, friends are betrayed, lives are lost. One of the many things that Gabaldon does superbly is show how great events aren’t history to those who live through them but simply everyday life, with children to be fed, clothes to be mended, the dead to be buried. And yes, whiskey to be quaffed, in celebration or in mourning.
At first, time travel doesn’t play a huge role in the novel. When it does, it’s mostly represented by books — “Green Eggs and Ham,” treasured by Claire and Jamie’s grandchildren; a precious copy of the Merck Manual that Claire references when setting bones and performing surgeries. But literature takes on a more ominous role when Jamie comes across a history of the American Revolution penned by Claire’s former husband from the 20th century. In it, Jamie finds his own name among the list of those killed at the Battle of Kings Mountain, N.C., in October 1780. Is it possible to outrun your own death? Could you countenance doing so, at the cost of honor and the knowledge of your own small part in a crucial battle for American independence? Yet what if one learns, as another character does, that a small act could change the course of world history, almost certainly for the better?
Gabaldon’s vast and sweeping account of the Revolutionary War is so intricately plotted and peopled that one is amazed she could conceive and write it in only seven years. Despite its scope, many of the finest moments are small ones, especially those that depict Claire and Jamie’s enduring love and passion as they enter their 60s. Readers may find themselves choking up as the book nears its cliffhanger ending. It may be another seven years before the next and final Outlander volume, but I’m betting it will be worth the wait.
Elizabeth Hand’s novel “Hokuloa Road” will be published next year.
GO TELL THE BEES THAT I AM GONE
By Diana Gabaldon
Delacorte. 928 pp. $36
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