Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Tribute to The Fiery Cross

Or How I Learned to Stop, Smell the Pig Shite, and Fall in Love with the Fifth Book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander Series


A young White Sow dreams of all the food she’ll be eating
to grow into her role in this book
As the wait for the new Outlander book and television series drags on (and oooooonnnnnnnnaaaarrrggghhh), many fans have been rereading the first seven books in the series. Fascinating online discussions abound as to the motivations of the characters, the nuances of meaning within various scenes, and future possibilities and foreshadowing.

Amongst enthusiastic effusions about all things even remotely associated with our beloved series, I’ve seen one recurring subject of complaint. People like to pick on The Fiery Cross. “It’s too slow.” “It doesn’t have enough action.” “Where’s the mystery?”

So during my recent reread, I set out to take a few notes about memorable moments. But I gave that up early on. There were far too many. Because the book was like a beautiful love letter straight from the heart of Diana Gabaldon. Lovingly crafted. For me and the legions of other fans who had stood by Claire, Jamie, and their family, waiting patiently for things to settle down and let them enjoy a life together. I was overwhelmed to the point of tears by this gift so many times I lost count.

Like a warm, kilted hug...

I don’t suppose I felt this way the first time I read the book. I remember being impatient and feeling like it wasna verra exciting. The second reading wasn’t quite like a whole new book, but my attitude had changed. I hope you’ll join me as I explain how a slightly altered perspective led to a remarkably different reading experience.
Spoiler Warning! If you haven’t already read the first four books in the Outlander series, you might want to stop here and come back after you’ve finished Drums of Autumn. I’ll try to minimize spoilers for The Fiery Cross.



A happy home of their own


First of all, I read The Fiery Cross after a long period of enforced abstinence from the series. I wanted desperately to read about Claire and Jamie. But I was trying to be a sophisticated grownup with a diversified reading list, instead of an undisciplined toddler with her hand perpetually stuck in the candy jar. So when I allowed myself to once again return to the Outlander world, I was so deliriously happy to be back that I did not mind one bit how long Diana Gabaldon wanted to ramble on and on about Gatherings and Weddings and life on Fraser’s Ridge. Because that’s where I wanted to be more than anywhere else in all of time and space. My objective wasn’t to find out what happened next this time around. It was to enjoy the journey. And there were a great many things in this book to savor.

Claire and Jamie through the years
“Where’s the mystery?” impatient fans ask. The mystery to me was how our beloved characters could keep up the frenetic pace of books 1–4. Propelled headlong into treasonous intrigue and doomed battles, racing (inasmuch as that applies to sailing) across an ocean to save one of their own, nearly drowning adrift in a storm before washing ashore in a faraway land, and forging a new home out of the wilderness. Would they never get to catch their collective breath, settle down, and simply enjoy each other’s company? Would they never be allowed to grow old together and tend their own dreams without constantly being forced to fight for or against country and king?

To me, The Fiery Cross is a reward for surviving the early roller coaster ride. Diana Gabaldon set out to explore how true love lasts a lifetime, and this book is the payoff. She’d shown us that absence makes the heart grow fonder. She’d forced these characters to learn to live with and without each other, through varying degrees and lengths of separation, to suffer and heal together. But could she show us what kind of life they would build together, if they were given opportunities to make choices based upon something other than imminent death or torture? If they could raise a family and forge their own way?

Source
Source

In The Fiery Cross, we see the life that Claire and Jamie have chosen, fully realized. We’re invited into their home and along on their travels, mourning their tragedies and celebrating their triumphs, experiencing the delights and challenges that life throws their way, and watching from front-row seats as the abiding love and respect that bonds them grows ever stronger over the years. We watch Roger and Brianna build their own family and choose their path forward. With every indication their time together can be as richly rewarding and enduring as her parents’.

We also see Jamie thrive as “laird” of Fraser’s Ridge. It’s a joy to watch him finally free to care for “an estate” with Claire at his side. How far they have traveled since Lollybrach, only to come full circle, returning to the life they were destined for, and settling quite nicely into it. This time in their lives reminds me of their interlude at Lollybrach in Outlander, after Claire decided not to go back through the stones. For me, there’s a feeling of completion because they have finally restored the sense of tranquility and purpose that Black Jack and the fickle finger of fate (or our sadistic ingenious author) ripped away from them.

Source
The Fiery Cross dives right into the nitty grittiness, too. We become fully immersed and emotionally invested in this new home, experiencing an exhaustive array of daily tedium and grand events in rich sensory detail. The Gathering might be, as Wench Angela laments, the longest book day in history. Jocasta’s wedding might be the second. But if you allow yourself to be fully attendant—luxuriate in the moment—there is a richness of activity going on all around and within our characters that enables you to participate at a stunningly intimate level, as if you were actually there. This is a testament to the author’s storytelling skill.

A sensorial feast


In 2011, Diana Gabaldon (known to fans as Herself) described her visual writing style in a fascinating interview with Author’s Road. She explained that she literally sees (and hears and feels) a scene in her head as she writes it. She doesn’t plan her storylines in great detail, she deciphers and transcribes what appears in her mind’s eye. (And as I once tried to describe in a fangirl post, her amazing mind is particularly adept at noticing every little thing and the patterns in which they all interact.) She sometimes creates an entire scene from a single object or emotion that she can identify concretely enough to write a sentence about. As I recall, she based the entire Outlander series on a completely random character she saw on an episode of Dr. Who: a red-haired Scotsman from 1743 wearing a kilt.

In the video below, Herself tries to explain her writing style, then actually begins to compose a scene before our eyes from a single image. Here’s a transcript of part of the stream-of-consciousness commentary that begins around 15:45.
You have stuff happening, you perceive these things, you get emotions and you get facial expressions and you get action and words, and that’s all coming at you. There’s me and there’s this big field [waves her outstretched hand in front of her face] with a lot of interesting people doing fascinating things, but between me and them there’s a sheet of plastic. And in some places it’s like Saran Wrap, it’s very clear, I can see everything, I can hear everything, and I just have to pick and choose how am I going to describe this...
am I going to focus on this person, am I going to look at the person in the back, am I going to mention the birds flying around back there, or are we going to just look at the body in the foreground. And other places, the plastic is sort of smudgy like 3-mil tarp, and I can still see people moving, I can tell what the action is, but I’m only getting half sentences. I don’t see the faces, so there’s more intuition there. And in other places still it’s like a garbage bag, it’s black, it’s opaque, it’s thick, I can see shapes bumping against it and I get the occasional word coming through, but I have to get up pretty close and feel with my hands and guess a lot about what’s going on over there. Sometimes the plastic will fade out or fade in its opacity. But once I’ve got whatever I’m getting from there... And it’s a continuous process, because the back of my mind is also kicking through the compost and asking questions all the time, and more little pieces come clear to me as I do. I’ll be saying “What time of day is it? How is the light falling? It’s coming in low from there, it’s late winter afternoon. Why is it winter? The light is blue. It’s got that blue tinge to it. Okay it’s late winter afternoon, the light is coming in low, it must be about three in the afternoon,” and I started this particular scene with a whisky glass. That’s what I do on what I call a “cold day,” when I have nothing in mind. So I’ll flip through my research materials until I find a kernel—a vivid image, a line of dialogue, an object, anything I can see or sense concretely enough that I can write a sentence about it. ...It can be an emotional ambiance as well. ...I sit there and stare at the sentence, I take words out and I put them back and I move the clauses around. And I write another sentence, then I change them around. ...I fiddle endlessly back and forth trying to balance that sentence and make it as clear and euphonious as it can be and as accurate for what I’m trying to describe. And all the time the back of my mind is kicking up these questions. “How is the light falling? So there’s this late winter afternoon light falling through my crystal goblet, which was incised with thistles.” (I picked it out of a Southeby’s catalog of 18th century Scottish crystal and silver.) And so I am writing something like “the late blue winter light fell through the crystal goblet incised with thistles” [*fiddles around with adjectives*] “the blue light of late winter afternoon fell through the crystal goblet casting a...” It’s falling on a table, it’s casting a pool of light, no casting an amber pool, I see it, it’s distinctly amber on the polished wood, that’s why it’s looking amber, it’s on polished wood—no it’s looking like it’s amber because the glass is full of whisky. Well now I know where I am, I’m in Jocasta Cameron’s parlor, because she’s the only person in this story who would have a glass window (I mean it’s not in a cabin with a deer hide over the window) and who would also have a crystal goblet incised with thistles on a polished wood table. So I’m in Jocasta’s parlor, so I’m thinking, “it’s winter, are my hands cold? Yes, they are, and so is the end of my nose, but my feet are warm. Why is that? There’s a fire. And there’s a dog by that fire, I’ve never seen him before....”

Author’s Road Interview, December 29, 2011

As I reread The Fiery Cross, I could not help but marvel at the lushly illustrated canvas against which the stories unfold. I allowed myself to wallow in all the sensations it aroused within me. Instead of wondering why every single thing our characters did took so darn long, I breathed deeply and became part of their scenes: birds singing in the trees, breezes tickling my nose with loose wisps of hair, dappled sunshine warming my cheeks, sweat dripping from my brow, chilled buttermilk tricking down my throat, muscles aching from hours in the saddle, chest constricting with terror as I raced against time to save a life. I felt like I was there, because she describes it vividly. Through her books, I feel fortunate to have seen and done many things that I will never have the opportunity to experience in Real Life. And I am particularly enamored of life as a pioneer farmer in the Appalachian Mountains—a lifestyle not so far removed from that of my grandparents’ parents. The opportunity to “live” this lifestyle is another reason that I love this book.

Diana Gabaldon combines her unflinching attention to accurate detail with an impressive botanical and biological expertise, and possibly even more formidable storytelling skills, to fully flesh out every scene in this book. Fraser’s Ridge is populated by a vast and teeming array of flora and fauna that changes with the seasons. Struggling and bustling communities, sweeping vistas of trackless wilderness, and the seemingly limitless diversity of life both domesticated and wild is vibrantly brought to life before our eyes.

Source

When you’re not in a hurry to find out what happens next, it is a treat to allow yourself to fully appreciate the gorgeousness of The Fiery Cross’s visual tapestry. The density of its weave. The intricacy of its patterns and the brilliance of its hues. Because with words, Gabaldon creates a work of art that can be appreciated from many perspectives: up close, resplendent with treats for all your five senses plus a few you might not know you had. And from afar, where the larger patterns and themes become apparent.

As much as I loved the thrill of the chase and the relentless quest for love, honor, and duty in the earlier books, I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to slow down and smell the roses, or pig shite, as the case might be, and be fully present in Claire and Jamie’s new home. It bears special mention that Herself’s powers of olfactory description are astounding. There are simply no adjectives that can do them justice. I’m far from the only fan to comment on her disturbingly accurate rendering of the most fetid and malodorous scents imaginable. Her scenes are always strikingly realistic, but the smells really bring them to life! You haven’t truly spent winter crammed into a backwoods cabin with 20 other people and no indoor plumbing until you’ve smelled the bouquet of attendant secretions, excretions, filth, and decomposition that permeates every corner after a month or so!

Source
In that regard, The Fiery Cross is a delight—a veritable smorgasbord of odoriferous complexity! And the medical specifics...can put you off food completely. In fact, this might be an excellent book to read while dieting. (Call it the Beardsley diet, after a particularly memorable chapter.) Especially if you take into account the large number of things you might never have thought of as food before that get prepared and consumed. If you’re wanting to shed a few pounds, this could be the book for you! Though Herself admirably offsets these gustatory affronts with frequent and lyrically poetic descriptions of whisky.

Yet even amongst all this “distracting” detail, a lot of things happen in this book. Slowly. Relationships deepen, loyalties and rivalries form, a community grows. But also precipitously, jarringly, unexpectedly. Major, life-altering events. Near-death experiences. Reconciliations, separations, and reunions. Intrigues grow that will take center stage in later books.

A grocery list of characters


In the Author’s Road interview, Herself says that sometimes her characters take over [her mind], and “it’s a great gift when they do.” She describes different types of characters that populate her books and how they reveal themselves to her.

  • Mushrooms pop up out of nowhere, unplanned and unexpected, and “invariably walk off with any scene they’re in.” They talk easily to her. I’d love to know who the mushrooms are in The Fiery Cross!
  • Other characters are hard nuts, and I suspect their motivations might be more difficult to crack. And again, I’m curious who these are. Jocasta, maybe, for starters?
  • But onions are the gift that keeps on giving. She “comprehends their essence immediately, knows who they are in their heart and soul instantly.” And yet as she works with them they continue to develop layers, “the more pungent and rounded and vivid they become,” and she continues to discover new and interesting things about them as they respond to varied challenges in unexpected ways. Many of our favorite characters are onions.
Claire and Jamie are onions, and for me it is their ability to continually reveal new layers that keeps the heartbeat of the series strong and steady. The layers revealed in The Fiery Cross are what makes me love it so much. This book comprises many small moments, so touching in their intimacy and intensity that they will remain in my heart always. They aren’t immediately swept aside by a relentless tide of momentous events—they often are the momentous events, and she gives us time to revel in them that she didn’t give us in previous books.

Source
Don't get me wrong—big things do happen, and Jamie is always “on call” when there’s military conflict brewing. But my impression is that more pages are dedicated to small moments than in other books, and I found it a refreshing change. Herself has a well deserved reputation for forcing her characters to endure tremendous hardship in order to reduce them to their essence and see what they are made of. And she definitely does that again in The Fiery Cross. But she offsets the agony with a more-generous-than-usual helping of quiet, healing moments. These are also moments that define the essence of character. And partnership and commitment. Not because they are exciting or angst filled, but because they tap into that sublime stillness at the center of our soul.

A few of my favorite quiet Claire and Jamie moments:
“He could feel the melting begin as she relaxed, that odd merging of his flesh with hers.

At first it had happened only when he took her, and only at the last. Then sooner and sooner, until her hand upon him was both invitation and completion, a surrender inevitable, offered and accepted.”

“Our lovemaking was always risk and promise—for if he held my life in his hands when he lay with me, I held his soul, and knew it.”
“You’re beautiful to me, Jamie,” I said softly, at last. “So beautiful, you break my heart.” {snip}

“But I am an auld man,” he said, smiling. {snip} “Yet I burn when I come to ye, Sassenach—and will, I think, ’til we two be burned to ashes.”

“To see the years touch ye gives me joy, Sassenach,” he whispered,“For it means ye live.” {snip}

Mo Nighean donn,” he whispered, “mo chridhe. My brown lass, my heart. Come to me. Cover me. Shelter me, a bhean, heal me. Burn with me, as I burn for you.”

I lay on him, covered him, my skin, his bone, and still—still!—that fierce bright core of flesh to join us. I let my hair fall down around us both, and in the fire-shot cavern of its darkness, whispered back.

“Until we two be burned to ashes.”

There’s a lot of talk about burning to ashes here. I wonder if that’s foreshadowing? And the title of book six, A Breath of Snow and Ashes? I promised to minimize spoilers, so you’ll just have to keep reading the books to find out. Is it cruel of me, and Herself, to leave you hanging this way?


The eye of the storm...


Hand in hand with quiet moments, the quality of stillness is mentioned often in The Fiery Cross, gently reminding us to appreciate this chance for reflection and preparation before all hell breaks loose again. For the characters, it’s the lull before the storm, though some fans seem to find it boring. This book repeatedly alludes to the stillness within the moments, and the kindred stillness that Claire and Roger have come to recognize deep within Jamie and Brianna.

“[Jamie had] a face strongly marked by both humor and passion—but which possessed a paradoxical and most remarkable capacity for stillness.”
“[Brianna] looked up at [Roger], then, blue eyes intent, and he saw that what he had taken for compassion was in fact a fierce stillness, like the small blue flames in a burned-out log.”

After this book, things are going to get a wee bit hectic again. War intrudes with greater presence. Other things happen that I wouldn’t want to spoil. In the mangled words of Shakespeare and Martin, the winter of our discontent is coming.


So here’s a different way to look at The Fiery Cross: Enjoy the idyll while it lasts! Kick back, slow the pace of your expectations, and let Claire and Jamie savor this time with their family. They’re not getting any younger, and time isn’t going to stand still for them much longer. Life on the Ridge has coalesced into this perfect little droplet of time that is about to get sucked into the mighty river of grand, historic events. This book sets the stage for the future developments, while giving our characters a chance to build their home in the new world on a firm foundation, to create a life from which they will continue to draw strength and sustenance.
“Neither of us spoke, not wishing to disturb the stillness. It was like being at the tip of a spinning top, I thought—a whirl of events and people going on all round, and a step in one direction or another would plunge us back into that spinning frenzy, but here at the very center—there was peace.”

The Fiery Cross also leaves us with parting words—inspired by something Mr. Herself said in Real Life—that are often lauded as the best in the series. They poignantly convey the reverence with which Claire and Jamie tend the miraculous life they have built together.
“When the day shall come that we do part,” he said softly, and turned to look at me, “if my last words are not ‘I love you’—ye’ll ken it was because I didna have time.”


What did you think of The Fiery Cross? Were you frustrated or fascinated? What scenes did you like best? Have you found new reasons to love it every time you reread it?

Celtic knot picture from here
Unsourced pictures from Pinterest, Alex Oliver, and my own photos

21 comments:

  1. I love this! I totally agree with you. I have read the book 4 times now. I have enjoyed it more with each read. Thanks for putting my feelings into words. Now instead of having to defend myself when I tell someone that I actually like this book, I can just point them to your post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh thank you--and I love your name!! I’m so glad you liked the post and could relate to it! I look forward to enjoying TFC more every time I read it, too. Just this morning I met a doctor who loved the series and is excited about the show, but as soon as I mentioned this book she had nothing good to say. It’s really a little gem.

      Delete
    2. I loved Jamie and Claire having a little time together and seeing deeper into their relationship..Claire is very insightful and accepting of people ..I got to know her much more and what kind gently people she and Jamie are. Always willing to help others...We also get a better look at Roger and Bree...Loved getting to know them and the introduction of new characters..Its also a real study of the period. My ancestors lived in this area during the same period so I really enjoyed the book

      Delete
  2. Totally agree with you and enjoyed it for the same reasons. Thanks for writing and sharing- I'll also share this write up and point people in it's direction when they complain.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Courtney, I’m verra glad you enjoyed my post and The Fiery Cross! Please do point them this way, maybe they will give it another chance! It was easier for me to enjoy TFC the second time around, realizing what a precious bit of time it was.

      Delete
  3. I sgree wholeheartedly. Iv always thought I loved the book because it's set in my home state of NC. BUT after reading this I realized that it is the pace and the oeace (such as it is) that I truly appreciate.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. But the scenery sure doesn’t hurt!! NC is a beautiful state! The Smokies look so peaceful, they were the perfect setting for the pace. They’ve always been a favorite place of mine, which I rarely get to visit anymore. I loved Jamie’s eye for picking out a homesite amidst all that grandeur.

      Delete
  4. I love this post Kathi, just love it. And you described exactly what I feel about it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Beta! I am enjoying reading this part of the series along with you and Angela! So nice to have someone to squee with!

      Delete
  5. This review is so beautiful, it has brought me to tears, just as Herself often does with her writing. Kudos!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Connie! I am honored. She brings me to tears often. I can’t read without tissues nearby. (I am guessing that you might be the same Connie who recently won a Pocket Jamie award! If by chance that is the case, congratulations!! I enjoy following you on Twitter!)

      Delete
  6. You noted: In the Author’s Road interview, Herself says that sometimes her characters take over [her mind], and “it’s a great gift when they do.” Well, her characters sometimes take over my mind, too! This was a delight to read, Beta! Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Her characters take over my mind, too! And my life! It is just too hard to put the books down sometimes! (Thank heavens for the excellent audiobooks!) I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Barb!!

      Delete
  7. I loved your post Kathi. I smiled that you mentioned me in it as well. I enjoyed the book, but as you know I did find it hard going. I think I'm all about the action, well at least partly. There were gems in the book and things that were hard to stomach, everything that happened to Roger. This book put him through the wringer and I loved how DG drops hints of events to come. You really can sense that war is on the horizon and what it will bring who knows. I'm unsure if I would be well adapted to this life, but your review puts a new spin on events for me and I'm glad that you expressed how great this series is and that this book has a place within the fabric of the whole story.

    It still contains to very long days ;).

    ReplyDelete
  8. I agree and I think it's more obvious now that this was our chance to savor a season where J and C aren't on the run. As a fan of history, the details are amazing. Your post made me wonder which book brought the most tears. I LOVED the mature love. Some of the most beautiful moments are found on Fraser's Ridge.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Debra, that is soooo true about Fraser’s Ridge. As much as I love young Claire and Jamie, I love them more as they mature. Many authors can write romance that sweeps us off our feet for a while, but not too many can write a lifelong relationship that continues to deepen, remains fresh and riveting, and lets us grow right along with it. As for the tears…I would be inclined to say the first three books for their tumultuous events, yet it was the many small moments that moved me to tears in this book. So I couldn’t even guess which book made me cry more. Perhaps we should do another reread to track the number of tissues used!!

      Delete
    2. That brings up a great point Kathi and Debra. I love the mature love as well. As someone who tends to lose interest in a series once the HEA happens it's great to read a series that yes the HEA of Jamie and Claire is central to the story, but I never feel at any point the story is boring or losing it's depth.

      Delete
  9. Great post Kathi. TFC is my second fav in the series, after Outlander.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Oh Kathie, this is so beautiful and so spot on to how I feel. I'm loving having that langourous peek into their peace. Watching them finally have some quality time building their life and watching their love mature even deeper. You expressed my sentiments beautifully. Thank you!!!!!

    ReplyDelete
  11. I have loved ALL of the Herself's books, but I truly enjoyed the Fiery Cross, just because it DOES meander through their daily lives. I loved getting a peek at what they did all day, how it worked, what they thought, how it smelled, how they felt, and reveled with them in the everyday occurrences. I love how Diana brings out the intimacies between the characters, and you feel the joy and the agony with them. Great post - thanks! - Catie

    ReplyDelete