A Horse Opera of a Different Color

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From James Michener’s beloved Lone Star doorstop Texas to Stephen Harrigan’s tour de force The Gates of the Alamo, the Texas historical novel has emerged, within state lines at least, as a genre unto itself. Those who enjoy Western lore and old-fashioned horse operas told with panache will find that Dallas author Kathleen Kent has earned space on that shelf for her third book, The Outcasts.

The novel follows a hooker with a heart of gold, two Texas Rangers—one laconic, the other loquacious—and a Jack the Ripper-like outlaw across the 19th-century Gulf Coast, with stops along the way in Austin, Houston, Galveston and New Orleans.

If that setup sounds like something you might have run across before, fear not. The story features no cattle drives, the characters are original creations, and the relationship between the lawmen and the prostitute is complicated, as they say.

Kent, a talented storyteller whose first novel—The Heretic’s Daughter, about the Salem witch trials—was a New York Times bestseller, manages to upend expectations through rich characterizations, historic verisimilitude and a close study of East Texas geography, despite the plot’s reliance on some less-than-convincing coincidences.

The outcasts of the book’s title are the prostitute, Lucinda, who in short order is revealed to suffer something like epilepsy, and newly minted lawman Nate Cannon, an Oklahoma-born cop assigned to assist the Texas Rangers in tracking a sadistic killer named William McGill. Spicing the proceedings is a subplot involving the pirate Jean Lafitte’s lost treasure, alluded to in a dramatic prologue, which takes place along the Houston-area waterway known today as Armand Bayou. The chapters toggle between Lucinda and Nate as their fates entwine.

In one stellar set piece, a horse leaps overboard during a steamship voyage out of Galveston. Cannon, an expert horseman, tracks its progress: “[T]wo small triangles appeared from the waves, and then the horse’s head reared from the water. With a great intake of air, the horse simply walked up along the sloping sea floor until it came to stand on the beach, coughing and breathing in great sucking gasps.” Kent ends the episode thusly: “[Nate] would, like the roan, point his nose to his destination and work muscle and bone to find himself on home ground again.”

There are echoes of another Texas-identified author, Cormac McCarthy, in Kent’s bloody novel, especially in scenes where the lawmen debate the nature of justice. But time and again, largely because of the humanizing attention to women and minority characters traditionally given short shrift in historical fiction, Kent manages a fresh take on a tale that could have been just another redundant entry in the Lonesome Dove sweepstakes.

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Houston-based freelancer Dan Oko covers environmental politics, outdoor recreation, and assorted topics for a wide range of outlets. Come quitting time, he usually reaches for a hop-heavy, Texas-brewed IPA.

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