"Outcasts of River Falls" by Jacqueline Guest

"Outcasts of River Falls" by Jacqueline Guest, Coteau Books

“Outcasts of River Falls”

Jacqueline Guest

Coteau Books

In her latest novel, “Outcasts of River Falls,” Jacqueline Guest illustrates that the impossibilities of life are often the remedies for our greatest difficulties. As protagonist Kathryn Tourond discovers, “impossible” is nothing more than a revelation pirouetting on the lips of disbelief.

Subsequent to her father’s death, well-to-do Kathryn Tourond finds herself at Hopeful Train Station in Alberta, Canada, awaiting the arrival of her new guardian, a prosperous aunt. Sure that the black-haired “Indian maid” approaching is a servant sent to bring her to her new estate, Kathryn, who has suffered the financial blow of losing nearly her entire inheritance to pay her father’s debt, finds solace in her aunt’s supposed social status.

Yet, when 14-year-old Kathryn discovers that the maid is her aunt and the riches her father assured her that her aunt possessed are nonexistent, Kathryn finds herself far from the comforts of her prestigious Toronto boarding school and among the Métis, or outcasts of River Falls.

“Part Indian and part European,” the Métis live on the outskirts of the town of Hopeful. Distained for their “mixed blood,” they are known as “Road Allowance People” because they do not own the land they inhabit but are simply allowed to live there, never knowing when the government may sell or use it for other purposes.

With effortless ingenuity, Guest allows Kathryn to evolve as she adapts to her “impossible” life at River Falls. Each chapter title ties into the one passion Kathryn still holds onto, literature. With her adoration and knowledge of her beloved fairytales, Kathryn employs her favorite characters to cope and connect with her new surroundings, including the enigmatic Highwayman, a hero Kathryn eagerly compares to Robin Hood: “He comes and goes; no one knows where he lives. Sometimes, he disappears for weeks at a time, then voila! like magic, appears when he is needed most.”

As tales of the Highwayman’s exploits on behalf of the mistreated Métis circulate among the community of River Falls, Kathryn learns about the discrimination her people must endure simply because of the color of their skin. Although her hair is blond and her skin pale, her heritage prevents her from attending a prominent academy. She must endure the basic understanding that her “kind” are unwelcomed nuisances living among the white community of Hopeful. Her transition from prominent, entitled white aristocrat to poor “ditch” person is more than just a physical adjustment for Kathryn.

The hierarchic journey Kathryn undergoes is not only a life lesson for her, but for the reader as well. She finds the discrimination so deplorable that she compares it to the brutality in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Prior to arriving in Hopeful, she has only read of such bigotry. Guest uses Kathryn’s perceptions to show that suffering is more than just words in a book about people we have never met. We may sympathize, feel pity and understand the injustice of undeserved agony, but a disconnect remains. And Kathryn’s heritage highlights her own personal vulnerability. Clearly, those of us who do not suffer discrimination are merely lucky.

This wonderful, evenly paced novel, a finalist in the High Plains Book Awards Young Adult category, provides a delightful read for young adults and literary devotees of any age. Kathryn’s journey proves to be “an eventful time. She remembered when she’d first seen the town and had decided it was more Hopeless than Hopeful, but now, she decided Hopeful was a good name after all.”

Charity Dewing is from Billings and is a mother to two wonderful children. She is graduating this spring from Montana State University with a B.A. in English, after which she will attend graduate school in Missoula to obtain her M.F.A and Ph.D.