The Sanctuary of Outcasts – Neil White (2009)

Sanctuary of Outcasts book coverThis was quite a provocative read for me and told an interesting history of a place I had not heard of. Neil White was convicted of kiting checks for his business (more than one time), and although he skated through the first time, he was caught red-handed after that.

The prison where White was sentenced was Carville, Louisiana, and was a former leprosarium – a former care facility for people with Hansen’s Disease (or leprosy) who share their home with minimum security felons. There is much made of this contrast between White the convict (who sees himself as a handsome blue-eyed white boy with interior deformities) and the colony patients (who are portrayed as deformed on the outside to the human eye but morally lovely inside).  (This comparison was clumsy at best, and made as subtly as a substantial kick in the head.) The actual history of Carville itself (and the care facility) was absolutely fascinating – the story of White less so, but as it is his memoir, we get lots more White.

I read the book halfway and was quite annoyed at the author at this point. Here is what I wrote at the 50% point:

“White does not seem to feel regret for his crime – only for being caught. He reports that he “mishandled” the money and that it was “for the good of my family” – and then what makes it OK for you and not the thousands of other people who also have families and choose not to steal (which is what you were doing)?  You stole money, Mr. White. That’s it plain and simple. Do not rationalize your bad behavioural choices. There is no grey area here. You did or you did not. In this case, you did…”

OK. Having now finished the book, this beginning section makes more sense (although it does strike me as somewhat manipulative to the reader). White ends up vowing change his ways and as the book progresses (and there is one large life-affecting event), you as the reader can follow his journey. (Well, not far as he is in prison for 99% of this book.)

This was a fast read with short chapters, but I am still not a big fan on White. He seems to be a bit of jerk and didn’t seem to be sincere about his changes in prison. I don’t know – perhaps he did, but he spins rather a hyperbolic story here (perhaps thinking of how Hollywood could handle it at some point).

Some niggling bits for me included some careless editing and repetition of facts (within a short span), and White went on and on about the nuns at the start of the story, but then never mentions them again (except vaguely during regular church services). I’m sure the nuns were mentioned with the heavy-handed goal of comparing good/angelic (nuns et al.) with bad boys (convicts) but this ball gets dropped pretty quickly.

One thing I did appreciate was the structure of the narrative. The book begins (naturally) at the start of White’s prison sentence and is then divided into sections reflecting the seasons of the year (summer etc.) This traces the expected narrative arc (Happy summer. Unhappy dark winter) so it could be argued that this reflects White’s maturity and growth (perhaps his redemption) as he learns from his experience. (Or, if one were being grumpy, it could be argued that this was a trite and unoriginal way to demonstrate growth of the protagonist.)

I think the biggest issue I had with this memoir was that, despite its interesting history, this was a rather tired storyline with a character who I don’t really like that much or have that much empathy for.  I don’t need to like a character in a book to enjoy the story (think Stone Angel, Doris Lessing’s characters or Margaret Fountaine), but I think that there does need to be some redeeming characteristics for the protagonist, and tbh, I couldn’t see enough of these to really care.