Soul Catcher, Michael White, William Morrow Publishing, 432 pp., hardcover $24.95, paperback $14.95, Unabridged audio compact disks $34.95.
Soul Catcher is not a sweeping novel of the antebellum period. It is cursory and somewhat predictable saga a man and woman, one a slave catcher and the other a slave. Augustus Cain, gambler, wounded Mexican-American War veteran and lapsed fugitive slave catcher accepts an assignment from Mr. Eberly, a wealthy Virginia plantation owner. The deal is that Eberly will forgive Cain's gambling debt and toss in cash if Cain tracks down two runaway slaves, Henry and Rosetta. The year is 1858 and of course one of the slaves has escaped to John Browns' upper New York state farm.
With three very stereotypical tracking companions assigned to him by Eberly, Cain sets out on a trek from Richmond to New York's Adirondack Mountains and to Boston. After Cain captures the runaways and turns south, the female slave and he fall in love during the course of the hazardous trip. Also during the return trip stereotypes such as a medicine show doctor with a hunchback, a dying widow with a dead husband in her bed, a cholera victim with a dead baby, are encountered. At times, in a cocaine/opium haze Cain hallucinates wolves and examines his memories of a failed matrimonial engagement, a failed love affair with a poor Mexican-Indian woman, and the failed relationship with his father. John Brown himself appears several times to clarify what is at stake in Cain's life and chosen profession.
At times the relationship between Rosetta, the slave and Cain rings true and at other times it is over-the-top melodrama. The climax and the epilogue seem forced; certain episodes in the novel come across as overtly manipulated by the author. None of the characters are independent of the author and only Cain is a full drawn and half-way interesting character. His hearing at times is very sharp as bad guys sneak up on him; at other times he is stone deaf. During the final shoot out at night in a cabin on the south shore of the Ohio River, Cain begins to run out of bullets. As Cain sweats through this predicament, this reader yelled at him, "Hey Cain! There are five dead men in the room each with bullets left in their guns! Get the repeating rifle first!" He didn't hear me. As he is looking down the barrel of the gun of the last man, Eberly, standing, Rosetta returns and shoots her master dead after Cain tells her for the first time that he loves her.
There are times when the antebellum details alone admiralably carries the narrative. But Soul Catcher does not immerse itself or the reader in the spirit of the antebellum era though there are several wonderful scenes that ring true to the times. Overall, much of the novel is 'tell' with very little 'show.' Even political correctness raises its head as Cain ponders whether all white men are guilty of the sin of slavery. He refuses to marry Rosetta because as a couple he believes that they won't fit in anywhere. During this era, every large city had its neighborhood where poor Irish and poor free blacks mixed and married. In NYC it was Five Points; in Pittsburgh it was Little Haiti. Widely travelled Cain doesn't know this though. Amazingly, in the epilogue Cain is in the Confederate army the night before the battle of Antietam. He believes that the war not about slavery. Really, not about slavery but a Southern pride thing which you really wouldn't understand.