Charlene Whitestone has grown up in a small farming town in New York, not far from Lake Ontario. The community is fairly rural, and poor, and the Whitestone family takes advantage of that from their large property on the outskirts. Charlie’s grandfather C.B. earns a living by several scams as well as straight business ventures – there’s the moonshine one, the church they run out of the house, preserves made from things grown on the farm, and they rent out parcels of land to others to farm. Plus there’s a few more outright illegal ones. C.B. can’t do it all alone, though, and he’s taught Charlie to keep the books and otherwise help out.
And her parents? Charlie’s dad is an abusive alcoholic, absolutely no good, and her mama is presumably bipolar and definitely unmedicated. Actually, they’re probably all alcoholics – Charlie herself likes taking a nip of the Chivas Regal or even some of the corn whiskey in the morning before school, or before church services, or while cooking dinner, and if she isn’t there yet, she’s likely on the path to it.
When The Outcast Oracle opens, Charlie’s parents have disappeared again, but for longer than usual. C.B. is starting to act worn out and has been slowly getting Charlie ready to take over all of his businesses. Charlie is fourteen and lonely, without any friends at school, where she is a year younger than her classmates, and now only Grandpa C.B. at home.
I found Egan’s writing to be wonderfully evocative. Charlie really came alive to me in her first-person narrative, and so did her community and family. It’s just a little thing, and maybe not so lovely out of context, but when describing the moonshine business early in the first chapter, she explains why the ledger sometimes takes until the first of the month to tally properly: “Some of his customers run short of cash when they forget to earn a living because they enjoy the moonshine too much.” I love how much she says there, about the business, about the customers, about the community.
Throughout the book, there are signs that things are going to come crashing down on Charlie – Grandpa C.B. isn’t doing too well, there’s no sign of her parents returning, the sheriff is breathing down their necks about the hooch shop (of which he has no proof), and Grandpa C.B. is getting into shadier and more illegal dealings. It’s no surprise that Grandpa dies (it’s even on the back cover), but when it happens was a bit shocking to me, as I expected it almost every page. And then what happens after had me worrying again and again for Charlie and her safety. It was a relief when I got to the end of the book, and a temporary hope for her, even if there are no guarantees.
I loved reading The Outcast Oracle and am very grateful that I was selected to receive it as part of the Early Reviewers program. If this is the quality of fiction that the Humanist Press is putting out, I am definitely going to be seeking more of it. And more of Egan’s works, too, for that matter.
This book was listed as YA at some point, but I’m not sure it really is. The protagonist is a teenager, but it seems that the content of the book is more suited for older teens or adults. At least, I don’t think labeling it as YA is the best idea, since that often limits the audience.