If I hadn’t heard Ted Dekker speak in person at the re:Write conference in Austin, TX, I probably never would have picked up this book. I like to read true stories and prefer a good dose of probability if not historicity in my fiction. To the casual reader, Outlaw, delivers neither.
The first 21 chapters follow Julian, a lonely, unattached, single mother perplexed by a mysterious song in a repetitive dream. Feeling as if she has nothing to lose, Julian and her two-year-old son, Stephen, leave their home in Atlanta in search of the dream’s source, its meaning. And here the story opens, with Julian and Stephen “tossed about like a cork on a raging dark sea off the northern tip of Queensland in 1963”.
A sudden storm capsizes the boat, taking the captain under with it. Julian is rescued alone by three indigenous warriors representative of three tribes collectively called the Tulim, living in a jungle valley by the same name. Briefly, Julian clings to the hope that she will escape or be freed and return to her homeland. But, she also wonders if life without her son is worth living. Perhaps she would rather die at the hand of uncivilized strangers.
Julian never goes home.
I won’t wreck the story by divulging details, but I will try to explain the feelings that, Outlaw, evoked in me.
Most nights, I put the book aside determined not to pick it up again. I wasn’t drawn in. I didn’t identify with Julian. The jungle setting and depictions of tribal life seemed to stretch my imagination. But somehow, perhaps a bit like Julian’s winsome melody, Outlaw, held some magnetic power over me.
Outlaw’s obvious themes are sacrifice and redemption. But what captivated me was Dekker’s description of humanity. Through key characters, Dekker reveals his perception of human bodies as costumes, our immortal spirits as our true selves and the freedom that comes from internalizing this truth. I could almost taste a new freedom; personally feel chains and inhibitions fall away as his characters progressively released their fears of pain, loss and loneliness and embraced the all-sufficiency of The Father.
A few things marred my appreciation for this book. Three characters seemed to simply disappear without proper closure and the demise of one seemed unnecessary and slightly outside of the narrative’s flow. Secondly, in the final chapters, it is a little difficult to discern between what is happening to flesh and blood characters and what might be happening to them postmortem in their eternal existence.
As for the narrative seeming a little far-fetched, the Author’s Note explains it was in fact realistic, however outside of the average reader’s experience. Dekker was raised the son of missionaries in the jungles of Irian Jaya. He lived among a tribe of cannibals called the Dani tribe. I particularly appreciated this revelation as it lent authenticity to the story instead of simple, wild imagination.