The Outcast provides a unique perspective into issues for women who are living in groups that adhere to belief systems not commonly shared by the majority of society. The novel is about an Old Order Mennonite woman, Rachel Stoltzfus, who is held solely accountable for an unforgivable act of fornication. Cast out by her family, she discovers she is pregnant and must survive in a world she was never previously allowed to interact with.
Sound familiar? The author, Jolina Petersheim has written a retelling of The Scarlet Letter, but I wanted to read Petersheim’s book to see if it could stand alone as a contemporary novel about a woman who suffers social punishment for actions that were once biblical law but are now common practice. I found The Outcast both engaging and thought provoking, and required no previous knowledge of The Scarlet Letter to enjoy and understand Rachel’s story.
Author Petersheim creates a believable world for the main character who grows up on a horse farm and leaves home to care for her sickly twin sister in her brother-in-law’s community. The descriptions of Mennonite law and culture are interesting and are creatively woven into the story’s fabric. When Rachel is subjected to the ancient practice of “outcasting” and a child is born into the situation where family and friends refuse to accept or support her, the reader is empathic to the protagonist’s plight.
Petersheim succeeds at exposing the multiple perspectives in the novel through the use of two narrators. One is Rachel, the main character and the other is her father-in-law who possesses an all-knowing voice due to his deceased state. Though I found the switching between the two characters to be difficult at first, this point-of-view style allowed for the complexities of the Mennonite group to be understood more clearly.
The novel also has merit as an academic introduction into the issues of subcultures, women’s rights, patriarchal power, sibling rivalry and the question of medical privileges versus religious belief systems. The reader is exposed to this subject matter through Rachel’s story and thus experiences the situations with a stronger degree of empathy. This “active involvement” in a story can increase student motivation to study the historical, social or literary concepts imbedded into the subplots of the novel and could lead to rich discussion in the classroom.
The Outcast by Jolina Petersheim is a book that will draw you into the culture of the Mennonites in a way you may never experience by watching them drive past a farmer’s market in their horse-drawn buggies. Through Rachel’s story, the hair covers and long skirts become women, the sun hats and suspenders become men, and we begin to understand their ways and their challenges. Rachel’s story is presented in a non-judgemental manner, but never-the-less convinces the reader of the importance of unconditional love and of the joy to be found in forgiveness.