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Book Review: Drums of Autumn

Drums of Autumn is the fourth book in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. This review includes:

1. A relatively spoiler-free piece about the book in general;
2. After an adorable spoiler kitten, some discussion of the book in depth, and
3. The major differences between the book and the fourth season of the television series.

In 1767, Jamie and Claire Fraser settle in the wilderness of North Carolina and build a home with the help of their foster son Fergus and stepdaughter Marsali, Jamie’s nephew Ian, and formerly indentured Scots from Ardsmuir Prison. Two hundred years later in Boston, Brianna Randall discovers a danger to her parents and must make a critical decision.

Author Diana Gabaldon never forgets that at its core, Outlander is a love story. While there is a lot of action and change as Jamie and Claire decide how and where to live, the focus remains on their adjustment after twenty years apart as they get to know each other again. And as always, the novel is exceptionally well-researched, occasionally intense, and often humorous.

New characters are introduced – most notably Jamie's wealthy aunt Jocasta, who fled to North Carolina after Culloden – and previous favorites return, as Young Ian accompanies Jamie and Claire into the wilderness, Brianna Randall and Roger Wakefield experience an unsatisfying long-distance romance, and Lord John Grey and his stepson William unexpectedly visit the Frasers during a measles outbreak.

And here's where I'm going to talk about the novel in more depth, so this is a good place for a spoiler kitten. Bail out now if you'd rather not be spoiled!

As I mentioned in my previous Outlander book reviews, Diana Gabaldon was once asked in an interview if she could sum up the theme of each of her Outlander novels in a single word. For Drums of Autumn, the word is "Family." This fourth novel successfully turns a story about one time traveler into the story of a time traveling family, as Brianna follows her mother to the 18th century and meets her biological father, Jamie Fraser.

One of my favorite scenes in the entire book series is when Jamie and Brianna meet for the first time. There is something so real about the way Gabaldon gives us this moment, when Brianna interrupts Jamie outside a pub while he is pissing against a tree and he mistakes her for a prostitute. There's such truth in it because we're rarely prepared for some of the big moments in life.

As their first meeting portends, Jamie's relationship with Brianna is far from perfect, mostly because they are both a product of their time. The ghost of Frank Randall often intrudes with Jamie found wanting, and Claire is caught in the middle. But Jamie's joy in finally knowing his daughter is touching, as is his sorrow at knowing he will lose her again when she goes back to her own time.

Matters become more complicated when Roger Wakefield follows Brianna through the stones and arrives at the worst possible moment. Where Drums of Autumn nearly loses me is the misunderstanding that occurs when Brianna's servant Lizzie tells Jamie that Roger is the man that attacked Brianna. This sort of plot twist is just too contrived for my taste, and it drives the action in the entire second half of the book as Jamie, Claire and Young Ian travel to New York to rescue Roger from the Mohawk while Brianna waits out her pregnancy at River Run, enduring Aunt Jocasta's well-intentioned matchmaking. I did like the denouement where Young Ian exchanged himself for Roger, though. While sad, it was well set up and emotionally satisfying; it made sense.

Unsurprisingly, what I like best about Drums of Autumn are the personal moments.

For me, feminism is about the freedom to make choices. Claire had a long, successful career as a physician in 20th century Boston while she raised her daughter with Frank, a husband she no longer loved. Claire made her choice to return to the 18th century with her eyes wide open. She chose life with Jamie with all of its accompanying limitations over her medical practice, modern conveniences, and her now adult daughter Brianna who had already left home and started a life of her own.

In that context, Drums of Autumn features two of my favorite scenes in the book series (other than Jamie meeting Bree). The first is Jamie and Claire, sitting in a rowboat in the dark, discussing how they can possibly continue living at River Run on Jocasta's terms, which would include becoming de facto slave owners. Claire doesn't try to push Jamie toward her own choice; she tells him simply that he is the best man she has ever met. He doesn't believe her because his view of manhood and marriage is fashioned by his time. He feels worthless because he is now forty-five and has nothing to offer her. There's something so moving about this scene, because it speaks to the core of both of these characters and why their love for each other is so strong.

My other favorite scene is similar. Jamie and Claire are alone in the wilderness before a campfire, again at night, having a metaphysical discussion about the afterlife when they are attacked by a bear, an obvious metaphor for death. Gabaldon's wonderful humor leavens a deadly situation when Jamie jumps on the bear armed only with a knife and Claire, at a total loss, slaps the bear in the face with a dead fish, hitting Jamie.

Book versus Series

All the major events in the book made it to the series pretty much intact. But there is a charm about Drums of Autumn that didn't quite make the transition.

— The two funniest scenes in the book – the snake in the outhouse, and Claire slapping the bear with a dead fish – didn't make it to the series. "What news from the Underworld, Persephone?"

— In the book, Jamie killed a real bear, not a mad man channeling a bear.

— During the robbery, the villainous Stephen Bonnet took Frank's ring, not Jamie's.

— Jamie and Claire didn't meet George Washington at the theater; John Quincy Myers was the one with the hernia, and Claire operated on him on the dining room table at River Run. In the book, Claire euthanized Rufus at the sawmill. There was a murder mystery at the sawmill, unrelated to Rufus, that didn't make it to the series.

— In the book, Joe Abernathy was in loco parentis for Brianna, to the point of cross-examining Roger about his intentions; Joe knew about time travel and where Claire went. Fiona also knew. Fiona's knowledge made it to the series, but Joe's didn't.

— In the book, Jamie and Brianna dream about each other while they're in different centuries. In the series, it's just Jamie dreaming about Brianna.

— In the book, the date of the house fire that will kill Jamie and Claire is January 21, 1776. In the series, the last digit of the year is smudged. This is ridiculous. In my review of the fourth season episode "Common Ground," I explained why it is ridiculous. If you're curious.

— In the book, Brianna arrived in the 18th century and went directly to Lallybroch to find out where Jamie and Claire were. Brianna spent time with Jenny and Ian and the rest of the family. Which made sense and would have happened in the series if they hadn't had casting difficulties.

— Murtagh led the Regulators in the series. In the books, Murtagh died at Culloden, and the leaders of the Regulators were James Hunter and Hermon Husband, who were real people.

— Jamie and Claire returned from New York in time for the birth of Brianna's son. Claire delivered the baby while Jamie held Brianna in his arms. I just don't get why they didn't do this in the series.

— Drums of Autumn ends at the Gathering. The Fiery Cross, book five, begins at the Gathering, the very next day. There is no Gathering in the series.

Some Outlander fans don't care for the later books – or more accurately, the books where Claire and Jamie are older – but as I've said somewhere, I tend to think of Outlander as two stories: before their separation and after. I like both. The later books are an answer to the improbability of happily ever after, reminding us that good marriages need work and that there are always challenges to overcome no matter how old you are.

Three out of four cabins in the wilderness,

Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

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