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Spoiler Warning: This article is a discussion of the book series Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. It specifically focuses on Books 3 (Voyager) and the books that follow it in the series. If you have not read that far, you may not want to read this article. If you don’t care to read the books, read on knowing that I will explain this position in full, which includes revealing important plot points. You’ve been warned!
A few years ago, after college, I worked for a while as a bookseller at one of the largest book store chains in the country. During that time, I was expected to read a number of books that sold well but were otherwise outside of my typical literary preferences. For those of you wondering, yes, this means I read all five of the Twilight books. I was also expected to read adult romance novels, because they represent one of the fastest-selling genres and much of the repeat/regular business. I wanted to only read one series, so I went with a manager’s recommendation to read Outlander, arguably one of the most popular histoical romances of all time.
I read the first book enthusiastically, the second one with gusto, and I started the third one full of hope. However, it quickly became clear that the author’s biased education had left a massive, gaping plot hole that no amount of 1,000-page sequels could ever fill: she chose to leave out cannabis and hemp. In doing so, she completely destroyed my tenuous suspension of disbelief.
Here’s the short and dirty version of the story, for those with no interest in reading it (or who have compromised short-term memory): Claire Randall, a nurse who served the British military during World War II, has gone on vacation in Scotland with her husband, a historian and British military officer, as a means to reconnect after their years of separation during the war. Claire, however, ends up falling through magical standing stones on a sabbat and winds up 200 years in the past, during the Scottish uprising. She marries a young Scottish warrior named Jaime, falls desperately in love with him, and eventually must flee back to the future to survive her pregnancy, convinced her Scottish husband, Jaime, is about to die in the bloody Uprising.
Flash forward nearly twenty years from the start of the first book, and you find Claire and her red-headed adult daughter researching the history of Jaime, his life, and his death. Only they don’t find what they expect; records indicate he survived the Uprising. Claire summons all her courage and decides to intentionally use the standing stones to go back in time again and be re-united with her love. So far, all standard romance tropes, right? Expect here’s where it all goes so very, very wrong.
Claire spends weeks researching before she goes back, trying to find effective medical options she can take back in time with her without changing history. She builds and transports a re-useable syringe. She teaches herself how to make homemade antibiotics. She reads old medical texts and journals, trying to find actually effective herbal remedies.
And somehow, during all of this research, she manages to NOT find any references to the vast number of cannabis-based patent medicines that were used around the globe for a host of illnesses during the 19th century?
Sorry, but I call bullshit on that.
Even if I could accept the idea that Claire somehow was completely inept at historical research (despite evidence throughout the books to the contrary and the fact that she had help from many others), I really have a hard time believing that her adult daughter, Bree, and Bree’s love interest, Roger, would not have suggested cannabis to Claire. After all, this second trip backwards takes place just shortly before the moon landing, and it is implied that Bree and Roger are relatively cool, average young people. To imagine they hadn’t at least tried cannabis is a stretch. And given how intelligent they are represented as throughout the novels, it’s hard to imagine that none of them would realize how much more useful a potent cannabis strain would be than just about any other single plant.
So here’s Claire, ready to fall back in time with only the clothing on her person and what she has in her pockets. She knows she has need of a pain reliever, a safe sedative, and it should preferably be something that she can create more of in virtually any situation. Let’s see here, what should she take? Oh, right. Some photographs, a syringe and some penicillin, which clearly means there’s no room for some hemp/cannabis seeds.
Cannabis wouldn’t be anachronistic in the pre-revolutionary colonies. Hemp was being grown all over the place and being used for a wide variety of applications. Claire wouldn’t have been risking changing history, as she was with the antibiotics and syringe. She would have been ahead of the curve, historically-speaking, but not by that much.
After a lot of reflection, given the level of research the author and her editors have clearly done, the decision to exclude cannabis appears to be exactly that: an intentional decision made in the early 1990s, a period marked by enthusiasm for the failed War on Drugs. This kind of intentional omission isn’t uncommon at all in the publishing industry.
And, to get even more spoiler-y on you guys, I can reveal that after medical cannabis began gaining traction, she included a reference to it in the sixth book in the series, published in 2005. Claire knows the smell right away, acknowledges it could be medically useful, and doesn’t spend the rest of the book kicking herself for not thinking of it before. Even worse, she still doesn’t use it in her own herbal medicine practice, despite it clearly serving the functions of several more dangerous items she tries to make on her own with limited technology. That failure, in my opinion, is the biggest plot hole in the entire series.