…people would trail after the merest rumor of gold, cleaving to their worst inclinations, like the inevitable and uncontrollable shakes following a strong fever.
The lure of buried gold is the backdrop for “The Outcasts,” Kathleen Kent’s beautifully written story of 1870s Texas. Through alternating narratives of two characters – both outcasts in their own way – we experience the harsh and often desolate life that awaited post-Civil War Texans.
Lucinda Carter is an epileptic prostitute who escapes a Fort Worth brothel to wait for her lover, Bill, in Middle Bayou. As part of their plan to steal some of the pirate Lafitte’s lost gold, Lucinda takes a job as school teacher in this small community on the Gulf Coast. This premise isn’t that farfetched: Lucinda is well-read, comes from a refined background, and has honed her skills at deceptive role-playing.
Nate Cannon is a newly-appointed state policeman who accompanies two Texas Rangers in their search for a ruthless murderer named McGill who has struck again in East Texas. The Rangers, George Deerling and Dr. Tom Goddard, have shared many years on the trail, tracking, apprehending, and occasionally doling out their own justice. The long journey from West Texas provides an opportunity for Nate to get to know the veteran lawmen and the life he has chosen.
As the lives of these characters converge, we discover there is much that connects them. The rugged isolation of Texas results in brief and casual interaction – the kind that Lucinda and outlaws exploit and thrive on – or deep, lasting friendships that come from the day-to-day struggle for survival. Having left his wife and daughter behind in Oklahoma to accept the job in Texas, Nate longs to connect with others, and welcomes the acceptance he gets from the Rangers. But Nate’s history is complex and he struggles with some of the decisions made while hunting McGill and his gang.
As in any good Western, justice prevails in The Outcasts, but this isn’t your stereotypical Old West story. Don’t be fooled by the prologue explaining the legend of lost Texas gold – the book has a much bigger story to tell. Kent has woven together a novel filled with complicated characters as diverse as the Texas landscape they travel. Survival here takes many forms.
It is easy to sympathize with Lucinda’s horrific childhood and descent into the sporting life, and understand how she could believe that Bill is her only way out. But this is a good girl gone truly bad, and her heartless choices go beyond mere survival. We meet Nate at a different point in his life – his values are still strong, but will be tested if he is to survive as a lawman. Lucinda’s perception of survival allows her to rationalize her actions, while Nate refuses to believe that must compromise his beliefs to survive.
Kent paces the story well. The long days and nights that Nate and the Rangers spend on their manhunt are descriptive and evoke the lonely stretches of road between outposts and settlements.
Lucinda’s travels are faster paced – her journey reflects the boom towns and transportation of the new Texas. There are enough historical and geographical references to ring true for Texans, but the plot is universal and should interest anyone in search of a good story. My only criticism is in the last few pages – the ends are tied up too neatly. After such a long journey, it shouldn’t be so easy to shake off the dust of the road.
Kathleen Kent is a featured author for the 2014 San Antonio Book Festival. Kent will join fellow author Elizabeth Crook for a panel discussion, “No Farewell to Arms: Texas, Violence, and History,” moderated by Stephen Harrigan at 1 p.m. on April 5 in the gallery on the first floor of Central Library.
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