Augustus Cain faces a past he wants to forget, a present without prospect or fortune, and an uncertain future marred by the loss of his most prized possession: the horse that has been his working companion for years. He is also a man haunted by a terrible skill—the ability to track people who don't want to be found.
Rosetta is a runaway slave fueled by the passion and determination only a mother can feel. She bears the scars—inside and out—of a life lived in servitude to a cruel and unforgiving master. Her flight is her one shot at freedom, and she would rather die than return to the living hell that she has left behind.
In the perilous years before the Civil War, the fates of these two remarkable people will intertwine in an extraordinary adventure—a journey of hardship and redemption that will take them from Virginia to Boston and back—and one that will become an extraordinary test of character and will, mercy and compassion. It is an odyssey that will change them both forever.
Soul Catcher is a dazzling tapestry of imagination and character, atmosphere and emotion. Poignant and utterly compelling, it is a story to be savored and remembered.
That said, I have two problems with the book. The first concerns the figure of John Brown himself, whose life is sufficiently well known to make it impossible to imagine a time in which he would personally have led a group of armed abolitionists in the East chasing slave hunters. The author would have done much better not to name his soul catcher chasing John Brown character "John Brown." This criticism comes simply from knowing too much history for my own good. I recognize it as a danger any writer of historical fiction faces: the story must be written in the interstices of the known, in the spaces between the incontrovertible facts, in those places and moments where we hope the reader is sufficiently ignorant that we may play our tricks as writers. It may be necessary to estimate how much of the history is known to your audience, and hope that they are not experts. You always run the danger of finding a reader who simply knows too much to suspend disbelief and follow you into your story. Unfortunately I am one of those readers.
Second, I asked myself repeatedly whether the relationship between the slave catcher and the woman he first catches, and then develops a more complicated relationship with, really was imaginable in the mid-nineteenth century. Sometimes I thought "yes" but too often I found myself wondering whether these were not modern ideas and people, placed in the mouths and clothes of 19th century characters. This too is a recognizably difficult problem for any writer. When we write a story set in the past, what elements of obvious modernity shall we allow to remain? And what elements of the period do we bring forward to signify that we are situated in the past? White, for example, brings forward period details about horses and guns and slave catching, and quite a few 19th century expressions (at least they sound to me like 19th century expressions.) These were all quite well deployed. But if we desire to know also the inner emotional lives of 19th century characters, then an author faces a much greater challenge. I'm not sure that I'm up to meeting it myself as a writer, but I'm not entirely persuaded by White's effort to do so either. Would the central relationship described in this book even be possible in its time and place? Is it possible on the terms and with the feelings that the characters express here? What did love and sex really feel like, and how did they express themselves in the 19th century? And if we grasp that, then how would the unique situation of this slave chaser and this former slave modify these realities?
These difficulties aside, the author does a very credible job of building a range of supporting characters who struck me as thoroughly 19th century in their aspects. Again, their persuasiveness may be related to the exteriority with which they are portrayed. Writing nineteenth century exteriors (surfaces, language, clothing, expressions) is one thing, but writing 19th century interiors a whole other literary challenge.
Finally, to White's credit the conclusion of the book doesn't take the easy way out, and by steering his tale away from the easy romantic possibilities that his story offers, White in the end writes a convincing tale of a southern man's journey through life. If we are not entirely persuaded by every one of the emotions and conversations that pass on the way, the larger arc of the life that is portrayed seems true to its time and place.