Neil White’s memoir In the Sanctuary of Outcasts was introduced to me as a book that can change lives. Big call. A very risky thing to say to someone who looks at hundreds of new books every week with an eye to their saleability. Even more so because it came from someone whose job it is to move a lot of said stock.
Admittedly, the premise of this tale which takes place on a backward flowing bend in the Mississippi River in Louisiana, is intriguing. In May 1993, Neil White was jailed for a year in Carville for bank fraud. He owed more than $1 million in debts from his collapsed publishing business. What he didn’t realise until he got there was that Carville was also America’s national leprosarium. Its 130 patients were effectively forcibly quarantined there, incarcerated for life.
In the Federal Medical Center in Carville, White witnessed an unprecedented convergence of cultures – federal inmates and prison guards were thrown together with leprosy patients, public health works and an order of nuns. For White, it was a year of reflection, self discovery and eventual humility as he learnt from this community of men and women who survived unimaginble injustice and tragedy.
In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is neither mawkish nor saccharine. It is not sanctimonious or proselytizing. It doesn’t wallow, it is not voyeuristic. In fact, it is a pretty straight up and down read.
According to John Grisham this is a remarkable story of a young man’s loss of everything he deemed important, his imprisonment in a place that would terrify anyone and his ultimate discovery that redemption can be taught by society’s most dreaded outcasts.
Well put. I don’t know about changing lives. What I can say is that this is a book that you will want to read. It wraps itself around you and keeps you warm and cossetted long after that last page.
To get a flavour, listen to the author himself: