Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Outcasts.
Like the search for buried treasure at the tortured heart of The Outcasts, once this chilling thriller about ranger and a prostitute grabs us, it refuses to let go. A hard, brutal frontier reality informs Kent’s tale at every turn, the author twisting her tightly constructed terror plot and holding it close. For Lucinda. who works in Mrs. Landry’s brothel, the spasms in her legs and neck and the endless laudanum she takes to ease them offer little comfort. Fear has fast become a reality; only the vagaries of surviving are important in this wayward girl’s daily existence.
A dark, handsome stranger comes to Lucinda at the Lamplighter Hotel in Houston, his hands and fingers slender and tapered (and “in full measure of her sickness”). The man offers Lucinda a new world of riches, asking her to help him get the gold buried beyond Clear Creek in the heart of a settlement called Middle Bayou. Lucinda jumps at the opportunity, securing a position as a teacher in this “crude, forlorn, and mosquito-infested” place at the end of the world. Yet with each step that Lucinda takes, she becomes a template for the ways in which betrayal and lust can change us.
Packing an extraordinary amount of twists, turns and intrigue into her tale, Kent takes the reader along with Lucinda as well as with young ranger Nate Cannon and his cohorts, George Deerling and partner Dr. Tom Goddard, as they traverse through the wilderness of East Texas on the hunt for child killer William McGill. Sent by the Texas State Police, George, Tom, and Nate are ordered to capture and kill McGill. Pitted against a seemingly brilliant adversary, sensitive Nate especially is ill-equipped to cope with the tragedy that will soon overwhelm him.
As Nate writes loving missives to his wife, Bess, letters that tell of the scrub and desert and the hardships he faces, he learns much from the two rangers, both experienced men of resolute purpose. But things go badly almost from the start when McGill doesn't break as Deerling thought he would. Then larger questions of survival begin to gather force as the action centers on Nate’s overriding need for acceptance and his efforts to overcome his natural aversion to violence.
Lucinda, meanwhile, lodges in Middle Bayou, the home of Euphrastus and Sephronia Waller. While husband and wife attempt to expose to her to the godly virtues of a Southern-bred education, Lucinda tries to get neighbor Bedford Grant to reveal to her where the gold is hidden. A series of violent contretemps tunnel her back into her past life and the black, perilous space that visited her: the abandonment into a madhouse, the years of sinking into uncontrollable fits, and the wasteland of half-remembered and loathsome couplings “stretched out before and behind and above her, like a great dark canopy.”
Kent makes it easy to stay on Nate and Lucinda’s side while she writes of 19th-century frontier life, a post-Civil War landscape strafed with horrific brutality where unrelenting torture becomes the state of play as the desperation rises and the days tick past. The prose displays careful polish, evoking a Western realism that rumbles fiercely and menacingly at intervals without open sentimentality. Middle Bayou itself seems to represent both the conjoining of miracles and the draining terrors. Almost biblical in scope, the Bayou is where crippled men walk, harlots pose as teachers, and vicious giants with claws can pull grown men from the riverbank.
Land is essential to the story, allowing us to know the characters while connecting us more to their experiences. Nate is linked forever to his friends in kinship through adversity while Lucinda is caught between her own desire for danger and stability. What seems at first coveted and playful might just be the foolish desires of a desperate, headstrong girl. It comes as no surprise when Lucinda’s foolish and seductive machinations begin to turn violent. Sometimes all the trust and self-sacrifice in the world is just not enough to repair the broken, dissolute promises of love.