|Michael White painstakingly evokes America in the 1850s. (Ellen Robinson/AP)|
A fine page-turner about the antebellum South
Richmond, Va.: 1857. In a late-night, liquor-fueled game of poker, one Augustus Cain loses over $300 - more money than he has. The only way he might raise that much cash would be to sell the only thing he loves, his horse, Hermes. However, Eberly, the wealthy planter who beat Cain at cards, offers him a second option.
Cain is quite talented in a line of work that is legal and lucrative but dangerous: tracking down runaway slaves. A boy and girl had fled Eberly's plantation recently. If Cain brings them back, his debt will be canceled, and he'll get $500. Cain is sick of chasing slaves, but doesn't feel he has any choice. And that $500 would be enough to start him on a new life out West, someplace without slaves or their haughty owners.
As Cain sets out on the trail of the escaped slaves with three of Eberly's men, we see an increasingly nuanced portrait of a good man in a bad line of work. In his own mind he calls slave catching a "filthy business," but always reminds himself he's merely enforcing the law. And he has rules, he tells himself. He doesn't harm anyone when it's not necessary. He would never rape a slave girl. One of Eberly's hirelings, an illiterate sadist named Preacher, remarks to Cain at one point, "problem with you Cain, is you think you're better'n ever'body else . . . We're all of us catchin' " slaves.
Michael White's "Soul Catcher" is a novel contrary to the American myth of fresh starts. It's about coming to terms with the life that's happened to you rather than making the life you want, about how the simple fact of being born means some of the biggest decisions have already been made for you. And yet, within whatever constraints time or place or birth have placed upon you, from time to time you have a few choices.
It's those choices that inject excitement into this fatalistic novel. Suffice it to say that halfway through, "Soul Catcher" turns into a good, old-fashioned page turner, with shootouts, ambushes, and horse chases that honestly will have you reading late into the night to see what happens next.
"Soul Catcher" is a fine book, even at times a fun book, but not in the first rank of American historical novels. White occasionally spoils the tone and atmosphere he has so painstakingly created. In an early chapter, the narrative voice takes an intrusive turn, explicating Cain's antebellum world view for a 21st-century audience. At other times, a word or turn of phrase is anachronistic enough to jar a reader out of the book's imagined past. These failings place the book a tier or two below "True Grit" or "Cold Mountain" - novels that immersed me in 19th-century America without a moment of disbelief.
White also commits one of the cardinal sins of historical fiction, using a real historical personage as a character when it's not necessary. There were plenty of abolitionists willing and able to hunt down slave catchers. Does Cain really have to run into John Brown?
Nevertheless, none of these failings negate the novel's many virtues: finely drawn characters, suspenseful passages, and a usually believable evocation of America in the 1850s. The novel is also a thoughtful exploration of a nation living with a brutal institution that contradicts its highest ideals. However busy you may be, you won't regret making time for this book.
Kevin O'Kelly reviews regularly for the Globe. He has a blog at notesandcomments1.blogspot .com.