Title: In the Sanctuary of Outcasts
Author: Neil White
Release Date: June 2, 2009
Publisher: William Morrow
Genre: Non-fiction, Memoir
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
From the publisher’s website:
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.
Funny and poignant, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is an uplifting memoir that reminds us all what matters most.
In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is a book that has many layers. On its surface, it’s a memoir about a man’s time in prison. Underneath, it is so much more than this. It’s the history of a leper colony. It’s the story of its prisoners, whose worst crime was to contract Hansen’s disease, or leprosy. It’s about one man’s realizations about himself and how he has lived his life.
Neil White’s journey over the course of In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is simply amazing. When he first gets to Carville, he is a proud, vain man, deathly afraid of the leprous patients. As time progresses, he begins to acknowledge his hubris in his personal life, which coincides with his reaching out to the patients around him. As he begins to accept his circumstances and let go of his prejudices, he learns fascinating information about the permanent inhabitants of Carville. He becomes friends with many of them, and they touch his life in ways he could not imagine.
My favorite part of the book, though, is when White acknowledges that he hasn’t changed a bit while in prison. He can’t change until he is presented with his former opportunities and makes different choices than the ones he made before. I love that he acknowledges that change is not easy, and though he seems like a different man by the end of the book, he is contemplative and aware of the fact that he has a lot to make up for.
I also really liked how frank White was in In the Sanctuary of Outcasts about his crime. He doesn’t try to sugarcoat it or hide it. Though instinct would be to make excuses for what really happened, he doesn’t try to do that. That’s how the reader knows that White has transformed himself since his stint at Carville.
The mistreatment and historical lack of understanding of those with Hansen’s disease, or leprosy, is a tragic fact. I found the information about leprosy, as well as the histories of the patients at Carville, fascinating. I felt like I learned a lot through In the Sanctuary of Outcasts.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading In the Sanctuary of Outcasts. I thought it was incredibly well-written, engaging, and difficult to put down. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys non-fiction or memoirs. You definitely won’t go wrong with this absorbing read.