Wednesday, June 17, 2009

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White
Copyright 2009
William Morrow - Nonfiction/Memoir
318 pages, incl. bibliography and resources

So, this is why I love memoirs. You never know when you're going to happen across some totally unusual, unexpected memoir that nobody else is likely to come anywhere close to writing. In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is definitely unique.

The background:

Neil White was a very driven, goal-setting kind of individual who hoped to someday make it into his favorite book, The Guiness Book of World Records. After graduating from The University of Mississippi, he started publishing a newspaper that was in direct competition with the Oxford Eagle in his hometown: Oxford, Mississippi. He was successful for a time, but eventually merchants had to choose between advertising in the older, established newspaper or White's newspaper. He began to lose money.

To avoid bouncing checks, White began to "kite" them. I had no idea what "kiting checks" meant, but the author described it as creating your own float by writing checks on two different bank accounts, depositing money that effectively doesn't exist to create a false balance in each account. He justified the practice as a way to buy time until he got more money, but kiting is a federal offense. Eventually, the debts became overwhelming and Neil White went bankrupt.

White managed to gather enough investment money to pay off his debt and keep the FBI at bay, but then he moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and started publishing a glossy magazine. Once again, things went well for a time. He and his family lived in a large house, owned a boat and spent a lot of money. Then, things began to go downhill and White returned to kiting checks as his debts grew. This time, White was caught and given an 18-month prison sentence. And, that is when In the Sanctuary of Outcasts begins.

The story:

Carville was an extremely unique prison. Located in Southern Louisiana, Carville was originally established as a leper colony in 1894. When Neil White arrived in May of 1993, the estate housed a combination of minimum-security federal prisoners and people suffering from Hansen's disease (a newer name for leprosy). The patient living areas were separated by a breezeway from that of the prisoners and were off limits, but prisoners and patients still managed to intermingle. At first afraid of the patients, White eventually got to know some of them through his job in the cafeteria, learned more about Hansen's disease and became friends with many of the patients.

Early in his imprisonment, the author decided he would secretly interview people and write a George Plimpton-style exposé, but eventually that idea faded as he got to know the residents. Ella, who was in her 80's, particularly touched White's heart. She had spent most of her life at Carville, separated from her family. Ella had a marvelous attitude.

White's new friendships with Ella, other patients and several of the prisoners, coupled with the fear of losing touch with his children eventually led the author to realize that he needed to change, but he still had a long way to go because in his heart he still wanted to be a record breaker and longed to be admired. Slowly, but surely, he worked on improving himself. His story is absolutely fascinating. In the Sanctuary of Outcasts was really hard to put down. I seem to be having that problem a lot, lately.

4.5/5 - Excellent storytelling, a lovely tale of redemption, solid writing, a firm sense of place. I took off a tiny bit because the old Neil White is the kind of person I'd secretly like to kick in the shins and sometimes I got a little tired of hearing about how his mind worked when he was all about money and image. Fortunately, he got over himself. He very kindly summarizes his time since he got out of prison, so there aren't any annoying loose ends.

Cover thoughts: I love that gorgeous cover, shown above. Unfortunately, I didn't make it to Mr. White's signing in Vicksburg so my copy is a boring old ARC with a single twig on a white background. Still . . . I feel very lucky to have won this book because, much as I love the look of Spanish moss dripping from oak trees, I don't think this book would have hit my radar. When it's hot out, I have a tendency to walk right past anything that looks distinctly Southern. And, baby, we are cooking in Mississippi.

Many thanks to The Book Lady and Folio Literary Management for the chance to read this book. I won 4 more in that same drawing and most are memoirs. Bounce, bounce, bounce. I just love memoirs.

Side notes: Neil White was friends with Willie Morris and plays tennis with Barry Hannah. Oh, man. Envy!!! The late Larry Brown used to live not far away, William Faulkner made his home there, and Oxford is, of course, the home of Mamasita, the Off-Square Books store cat:

If you're going to get stuck in Mississippi, I recommend that you try real hard to end up in Oxford.

Just finished reading: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe. Which brings to mind the fact that this has been a really, really fun reading year. Watch for a glowing review of Physick, after I get my house clean. But, don't hold your breath. I've been doing an awful lot of siesta reading and not a whole lot of tidying.


  1. This sounds like another book I'll get from the libray. Along with The Physick book. :) I cannot wait to read your review. I did get some reading done myself but this heat is killing me and we're under a tornado watch till 1opm so hoping to get some more reading done since I won't be online much.

  2. I love memoirs, too! I can't wait to read this one.

  3. Krista,

    I think you'd enjoy both books. Do NOT complain to me about heat. I will have to fly up there and whack you (not a bad idea, really -- I could cool off).


    Aren't memoirs fun? ITSoO is a good one.

  4. Not complaining about the heat at all. Just know that I am an incubator right now and heat affects me worse than if I wasn't pregnant. lol

    I'll get to them when I can but I am #1 for In the Sanctuary of Outcasts.

  5. I'm glad to hear he got over himself, his growing up sounds pretty good.

    And not a bad problem to have! (Books you can't put down).

  6. Thanks so much for this great review. I usually only read humorous memoirs so I doubt I would have picked this one up but now I am looking forward to adding it to my wishlist. :D

  7. Krista,

    I know; I'm just razzing you because you always think it's hot in the summer. You would probably go splat, here. I did, once. It wasn't pretty. At this moment (7:36 pm) we have a 103 heat index, although it's a mere 91 degrees outside. I hope this isn't a sign of how bad the summer's going to be. It's only June!!!

    Cool, you'll get to read the book right away, then! I'll look forward to reading your thoughts. :)


    It took him a long time, but once he realized he had to change it was kind of a sigh-of-relief thing. Although, let's face it, half of America is probably very much like the author was -- all about the money and prestige.

    I love it when I find a book that's hard to put down, but boy . . . not a lot of housework getting done around here, lately. Sometime I'm going to have to get over myself and do the serious cleaning. I keep hoping we'll get one of those cool-front thingies, but the foreceast is not looking very hopeful.


    You know, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is surprisingly light. I may have even laughed, a time or two. You'll definitely get some smiles out of it. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did. :)

  8. You know, Doll, you could send some heat up this-away. It's been nice but only in the low 70's today. I'd take another five or so degrees...

    The book sounds great and I love the cover. I can't imagine it with the cover you described. Not the same impact at all.

    Check kiting also includes having two accounts at separate banks, writing a check at a grocery story on one account and get cash back then depositing the cash into the other account to cover a check written there. Electronic banking is quickly doing away with schemes like kiting.


  9. I know you're razzing me. I rarely turn on our window unit so I have adjusted to most of it.

    Yeah I'd probably go splat but drinking a lot of cold water helps. :) I'd be downing the stuff. lol I'd adjust to it but it takes time.

    Sure come up here any time! We have a full mattress I can put on the floor! So end of October look good for you? ;)

  10. CJ,

    We're in the 90's -- supposed to have a high between 95-97 for the next 4 days, so it's a bit more than the 5 degrees you're wishing for (over 100 with the heat index, all week -- poor lifeguard kiddo is suffering). Upper 60's to low 70's are my favorite temps. I'd be happy to trade.

    That gorgeous cover is a real grabber. I do tend to tune out Southern-looking book covers when it's hot, but I think they did an amazing job with the final cover. It clearly says, "Something Southern is happening in this book."

    Oh, interesting! No wonder the stores are all going to electronic banking. I'm so old-fashioned, I still don't even have a debit card (or an ATM card) and one thing that's come of that is impatience. Clerks tap their fingers against the counter and shuffle their feet when you write a check. It just drives them nutty. I may have to give in and get a debit card, someday.

  11. Krista,

    Geez, I am so envious. We've had the A/C on for 3 months (off and on -- now it's going 'round-the-clock).

    We drink a lot. This is the time of year that we need to keep stocked up on cases of bottled water, just in case of hurricanes, but we keep running out (because our tap water tastes horrendous). I've never handled heat well, even when I was a kid.

    Oh, hahaha, October! Riiiiight. Like I'm going to fall for that. You know October is when we start to have hope because we know fall's coming, right? Darn, no free babysitter for you. I'd drop in on you in August, though! Eck, I don't even want to think about August.

  12. I will be adding this title to my tbr: more bad blogger votes for YOU.
    and I want some heat, please! I've got cold clamminess. ANd I hereby extend an invit to you to spend a rainy weekend on a boat with ~ 65 degrees - come on over.
    AND... I used to say i've been to MS but I'm now wondering if I was just fooling myself. I would love to visit Oxford,

  13. I know it's going to take my library a while to get this, but I'm #1` on the waiting list!! I'm really looking forward to reading this one.

  14. The cover is beautiful!
    And this storyline is so intriguing !

    I never knew anything about kiting checks either! :) :)

  15. I'm going to request this one from the library if they don't have a copy. Love good memoirs and this one sounds interesting!

  16. Care,

    Wahoo! Bad blogger votes!!

    Careful. You will find me on your doorstep in nothing flat. How anyone can dislike temps in the 60's is beyond me. We're supposed to hit 97, today. Yuck.

    Maybe you drove through Mississippi as a child and have a lingering memory. Just before my mother died, I told her my first memory took place in a small kitchen with dark gray flooring and I remembered falling toward the gray linoleum. My mother said, "Oh, yes, you fell out of your high chair when you were 11 months old. That was our house in Kansas City." Oh. Cool!

    You should definitely visit Oxford. It's a pretty little town.


    I want your library. Could you just box it up and send it south, please? :)

    Hope you enjoy the book!


    Isn't that a striking cover?

    I'd never even heard the word "kiting". He lost about a million dollars. Goodness. You'd think they'd catch a person before it got that bad, wouldn't you?


    Memoirs seem to have become a hot trend in publishing and I'm happy about it. I've enjoyed them for many years. In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is a really good one. I love the uniqueness and Neil White is an excellent writer.

  17. Great review. This one sounds terrific. I love a good memoir!

  18. Holly,

    Thank you! Me, too, but you probably knew that . . .

  19. Glad you enjoyed it! I'm conducting an audience participation interview w/ Neil White. Submit your questions here.

  20. Rebecca,

    I saw your post, but I couldn't think of anything to ask him. I'm not very good at coming up with interview questions -- which is why you don't see a lot of interviews on this blog.

  21. How interesting that there were patients and prisoners practically thrown together. I'm not a big fan of memoirs but the setting of this one is certainly different! Really enjoyed your review!

  22. Iliana,

    I think that's what made the book so fascinating -- the unusual pairing of prisoners and patients. Thanks!

  23. Wow, this one sounds terrific. I've been fascinated by Hansen's Disease since reading Alan Brennert's novel Moloka'i last year. In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is definitely going on my wish list. Thanks for a great review!

  24. Kristi,

    I haven't gotten to Moloka'i, yet, but now I know exactly which shelf it's on. I scoped it out, after reading In the Sanctuary of Outcasts.

  25. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is our (Barnes & Noble) latest "push" title and my sister-in-law is currently reading it and says it's fantastic. I may get to it eventually.

    I've been picking up and setting back down several books. Probably won't even blog about them. However, I have three that are in need of reviews. Two were very good! Stay tuned! :)

  26. Les,

    Your sister-in-law is right. Physick is fantastic. The author is an historian and you can really tell. Plus, there's a little romance, a little bit of a paranormal aspect. It's just an all-around wonderful, escapist read, in my humble opinion.

    I've got three to review, also. I've had such a great reading week I could just burst. I love that. :)

  27. So, you didn't have to take me so literally so fast! It's 75 here, which is beautiful but Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are all forecasted to be in the 80's! No, not really complaining.

    And I still write checks but my niece does everything via her ATM card. That would scare me.


  28. CJ,

    I've decided I'm just going to try to shut up about the heat. We've got a good 4 more months of it, so I'm just going to think cold thoughts, look for my snowflake earrings . . . maybe read that book about the chick who survived a deadly avalanche.

    I'm personally very, very nervous about ATM/debit cards. We had an ATM card when we were still in Oklahoma and I couldn't keep track of the receipts. And, then when we were living in Ann Arbor someone was cracked over the head at an ATM just a couple of blocks from our townhouse and the eldest had someone in London withdraw money from his account. Nerve-wracking, those electronic things. We've never gotten one, here. I don't want to. But, someday, they'll probably stop accepting checks at all and then we'll be stuck.


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