Book review: Complex characters navigate post-Civil War Gulf Coast in ‘The Outcasts’

Posted Sunday, Sep. 22, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
The Outcasts by Kathleen Kent Little, Brown and Co., $26 Audiobook: Little, Brown and Co., $30; read by Ellen Archer. * * *  Meet the author Kathleen Kent will sign copies of The Outcasts at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Dallas Barnes & Noble, 7700 W. Northwest Hwy.; 214-739-1124.

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Sex, lies and geometry are three things your mother warned you about.

Bestselling author Kathleen Kent exploits all three in her latest historical fiction novel, The Outcasts.

Kent, who ventured to Puritan New England with her historical fiction offerings The Heretic’s Daughter and The Traitor’s Wife, leads readers through the post-Civil War Gulf Coast in this offering.

Kent introduces readers to a couple of Southerners who want the reader in their corner. They are presented in situations that play on readers’ empathy, curiosity and high expectations. But there are two sides to every story, and the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Lucinda Carter is a troubled woman with a secret, whom the reader meets as she’s fleeing a Fort Worth brothel and Hell’s Half Acre with a pouch full of stolen money. She is off to meet up with her lover, who has a plan to make them rich by finding the rumored buried gold of Jean Lafitte. If she can see the plan through what seems like impossible odds, she’ll finally have the life she has always dreamed of.

Newly sworn-in Texas state policeman Nate Cannon is on the hunt for thieving murderer William McGill. Nate is honest, fair and somewhat naive. These traits do not initially serve him well as he travels the Gulf Coast with experienced rangers Tom Goddard, known as Dr. Tom for the one year he spent in medical school back east, and George Deerling, who’s testy and stoic. Nate writes to his wife: “I fear their years on the borderlands have made them at times ... hasty.”

The minor characters, the likes of barkeeps, madams, crooked sheriffs and small-town families, are the real treasures of The Outcasts. In Middle Bayou, the townsfolk both irritate and endear themselves to Lucinda. They are full of surprises. In Galveston and later in colorful New Orleans, quirky characters serve to both scare and aid Nate along his journey.

Lucinda makes her way to Middle Bayou to take a job as a teacher and weave herself into the lives of the Waller and Grant families. She bides her time teaching the three R’s — and geometry, a subject close to her heart — while setting up the scene for her partner in crime. Every deceptive move she makes, she believes will only get her that much closer to the new and better life he has promised her.

Nate’s mission isn’t much easier. He has months on horseback to learn to get along with and understand Dr. Tom and Deerling, as they crisscross the state always one step behind McGill.

Nate endures lessons in constellations, the finer points of firing a rifle and snake handling, as he tries to prove his worth to his partners and himself. We see into his conscience in letters he struggles to compose to his wife back in Oklahoma.

The novel moves smoothly between the two storylines. Kent paints vivid pictures of the wide-open spaces of Texas, the growing small towns and the more contemporary cities of Austin, Galveston and Dallas. Hotels, brothels, businesses and bars line the streets of these cities, and Kent visits every one. The reader gets to travel by horse, boat, carriage and train. Kent’s extensive research is showcased in her detailed history and descriptions of the South in the late 19th century.

When Lucinda’s and Nate’s paths finally cross, there is sorrow and hope. But who’s right and who’s wrong? Who can come out of this story and have a happily ever after? Who’s the real villain and who’s the real victim? Kent’s mastery of historical fiction will leave it up to you.

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