Best known for The Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliff is an author whose tales captivate both young and old. Outcast is just one of her books which I’ve returned to time and time again – so ignore the fact that you’d probably find it in the children’s section of bookshops. Like many of her other books, Outcast is set in Roman Britain. It tells the tale of Beric, a boy who spends his childhood in a British tribe, only for his life to be destroyed when he is cast out for bringing bad luck upon his community. His crime? He was born a Red Crest; a Roman.
But Beric’s bad luck must also be sprinkled with some good – for he is a survivor; right from the moment when he lived through the shipwreck which killed his real parents. Sutcliff’s hero is bewildered, innocent, preyed upon. And yet while events turn from bad to worse – this is still a warming story. Is it fate which guides Beric’s path through the world, or is it his own actions? A little bit of both; Beric cannot change what happens to him, but he does know what he is looking for – a place where he belongs, where he will no longer be an ‘outcast’.
This novel is less of an adventure than The Eagle of the Ninth, but covers more emotion and tackles fascinating subjects with lightness of touch; such as identity and slavery. Beric’s relationships with various incidental characters of all walks of life demonstrate Sutcliff’s ability to craft his personality within a few short pages.
Not only are Sutcliff’s subject matters suitable for both teenagers and adults, but her language and vocabulary are too. A younger reader might struggle with the vocabulary, but by no means would I classify this a difficult read. Outcast was originally published in 1955, but Sutcliff deserves her place on 21st century bookshelves, and will still be there in years to come, even if it is a place supported by her most famous works – her back catalogue being largely (and unjustly) omitted.