“[T]he assumption that I had growing up was you had to be in England if you wanted to have a magical adventure,” says novelist N. D. Wilson. Go out and search the young adult shelves at your local bookstore; he is right. Apparently you have to go across the pond, maybe even travel to ancient Egypt, or tap into the literary wellspring of Greek or Norse mythology if you want to go on a magical quest. America—young country that it is—simply isn’t that interesting. But Wilson begs to differ. From Kansas, where an ordinary attic harbors cupboards that lead to faraway worlds, to the shores of Lake Michigan, where a brother and sister are initiated into a secret society, to the sugar cane fields of Florida, where a pair of cousins must run fast as flame from an ancient queen and her swamp zombies, N. D. Wilson is largely a writer of Americana fantasy fiction, of stories rooted and grounded in American history, culture, and legend. His latest novel, the first in an all-new series, Outlaws of Time: The Legend of Sam Miracle, takes us to a time and place heretofore unexplored in his literary Americana: the Old West or, more appropriately, the Wild West.
. . . this world—the one in which we all live and move and have our being—is a magical placeSamuel Miracle is a twelve-year old orphan living on a youth ranch (a foster care facility) in the arid Arizona desert with twelve other boys. Unlike a typical pre-teen boy, however, Sam is prone to nightmarish daydreams that often end with his death, and his arms are stiff as boards because of a terrible accident that he can’t quite remember. While he feels at home with the boys of the St. Anthony of the Desert Destitute Youth Ranch, he doesn’t seem to fit in with the present moment. But when Sam is called up to the main office for a routine meeting with a doctor, he encounters a take-charge girl named Glory Spalding, as well as Father Atsa Tiempo, a time-traveling priest who holds some mysterious answers. Forming an unlikely trio, Sam, Glory and, Tiempo journey to 1880s Arizona in order to fix a broken story—a path that takes them through the legendary town of Tombstone, where they meet some of the most famous lawmen, gunslingers, and cowboys history has to offer, in pursuit of El Buitre, an outlaw who travels the corridors of time seeking to destroy Sam Miracle, the boy who can set wrongs right.
Wilson’s narrative unfolds with the breakneck speed of a runaway locomotive. In the hands of a lesser author, Outlaws of Time’s genre-bending time travel narrative, surreal dream sequences, and metatextual elements (a prophetic book where words are written, erased, and rewritten to reflect its protagonist’s choices and actions) might overwhelm or confound the reader. But Wilson is a trustworthy, steady-handed conductor; he keeps the train on the tracks (even when the ride is treacherous). At any rate, the brisk pace is part of what makes Outlaws of Time work so well. It does not afford an emotional detachment or distance from Samuel Miracle—or the dangerous set of circumstances in which he finds himself—but instead encourages us to feel like and identify with him in his struggles. Like the novel’s protagonist, we are carefully and lovingly thrown across centuries, and although Wilson does not take us to faraway worlds or distant planets or alternate dimensions, the setting feels remarkably like those places, as mysterious as the halls of Hogwarts, as alive as the swamps of Dagobah, and as captivating as the countryside of Narnia.
With Outlaws of Time, however, Wilson suggests that the opposite is true: It is not that the Old West to which Sam Miracle travels looks and feels like Narnia (or the myriads of other words created by great artists), but that these so-called fantasy worlds are much more like our own than we are ready to admit. In other words, this world—the one in which we all live and move and have our being—is a magical place, Wilson says: “We need to see fantasy in the tides and the spring, in childbirth and love and sweat, in eyeballs that see and tongues that taste, in the blazing star above us and the forests grown with its energy, rustling in the wind.” Or, as Outlaws’s time-traveling priest aptly states, “You will never find a corner of this world where there is not magic.” The trick is to open your eyes long enough to see it.
Wilson’s Legend of Sam Miracle is not an escapist playpen or a bit of junk food to be eaten in secret until you can gorge yourself on “weightier” theological works; Outlaws of Time is a feast—a banquet of the highest order—for your imagination and affections. But like Narnia’s beloved Aslan, Outlaws of Time is not safe: the villains are truly evil (not in a comic book sense of the word, either—although many of them are mustachioed), and even the heroes are, as one character puts it, “part nightmare.” This is because Wilson’s tale has deep roots in the old, old story—the one with a man, a woman, and a tree; the one with a curse, a broken narrative; the one where the Word became flesh, crushed the serpent’s head, and set the story straight. So do yourself a favor and saddle up with Sam Miracle, blaze a trail through the desert, come face-to-face with El Buitre, and let Outlaws of Time awaken in you a childlikeness that perhaps you have forgotten.