In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White, 352 pages. Now available in paperback.
from the back cover:
Neil White, a journalist and magazine publisher, wanted the best for those he loved—nice cars, beautiful homes, luxurious clothes. He loaned money to family and friends, gave generously to his church, and invested in his community—but his bank account couldn’t keep up. Soon White began moving money from one account to another to avoid bouncing checks. His world fell apart when the FBI discovered his scheme and a judge sentenced him to serve eighteen months in a federal prison.
But it was no ordinary prison. The beautiful, isolated colony in Carville, Louisiana, was also home to the last people in the continental United States disfigured by leprosy. Hidden away for decades, this small circle of outcasts had forged a tenacious, clandestine community, a fortress to repel the cruelty of the outside world. It is here, in a place rich with history, where the Mississippi River briefly runs north, amid an unlikely mix of leprosy patients, nuns, and criminals, that White’s strange and compelling journey begins. He finds a new best friend in Ella Bounds, an eighty-year-old African American double amputee who had contracted leprosy as a child. She and the other secret people, along with a wacky troop of inmates, help White rediscover the value of simplicity, friendship, and gratitude.
While there is nothing unique about going to prison for check kiting, being sent to a prison connected to the nation's only remaining leper colony is anything but typical. And Neil White tells an amazing story of how he got there and what he learned.
This place was bizarre, like something out of Alice in Wonderland or The Twilight Zone. Nuns and monks. A leper with no fingers. A man who howls like a dog. A doctor with an impotence injection device. Inmates fat enough to be in a carnival. A guard who squelches my questions, but seems just fine with prisoners sunbathing. And a legless woman chanting like Dorothy in Oz. How the hell did I end up here? (p. 17)
Even though the cast of characters rivals any found in contemporary southern fiction, this remains a memoir. I say this only because I found myself wishing for more stories about the supporting cast. White does not shy away from exposing his shortcomings - namely arrogance and hubris - to establish the framework for his journey. And obviously, with nothing but time on his hands the fine line between introspection and self absorption is breached regularly. The combination of historical information with personal anecdotes delivers both humor and tenderness in the right places. For a man concerned with appearances to be taught by those for whom appearances equal condemnation is powerful stuff. The lasting impact is evident in the care and compassion White takes writing the story several years following his release. In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is simply a fascinating, enjoyable read and I encourage you to give it a look this summer.
Thank you to TLC Book Tours for providing the review copy and including me on the tour. If you would like to read additional reviews, click the TLC link above.
For more about the author: http://www.neilwhite.com