Fiction of 'Soul Catcher' brings truth home
“Soul Catcher” by Michael White. William Morrow Co., N.Y, 2007. 415 pp. $24.95.By John Whitfield
For the Salisbury Post
Dehumanize: To regard as less than human; to deprive of human sensibilities.
In “Soul Catcher,” Michael White has produced a novel which, though fiction, could easily parallel historical fact. It is an interesting, very well-written story, and provides insight into a difficult period of American history. For high school or college students, book clubs or any reader looking for something more than fluff reading, “Soul Catcher” would be an excellent choice.
August Cain is a person of contradictions. His father, a Virginia plantation owner, taught Cain two things: to enjoy reading Milton and Shakespeare and to regard Negroes (his word) as less than human. A tough, wounded veteran of the Mexican War, Cain has a special skill in his ability to capture and return runaway slaves. He is ambivalent about his work, liking the good pay but sensing that he captures not just the slaves, but also their souls.
Forced by gambling debts into another search, Cain and three companions set out to find and return two slaves. One is Henry, a somewhat slow, compliant man; the other is Rosetta, a bright, young, attractive blue-eyed woman. Their owner makes it clear that he is particularly interested in Rosetta’s safe return. Cain and his companions travel north to New York and Boston, careful to avoid encounters with abolitionists who despise and threaten them.
It is after the capture of Henry and Rosetta and the beginning of the trip south that the thrust of the story occurs.
While a tough, hard man, Cain is not cruel. The same cannot be said for his companions, and Cain is alert to the need to protect Rosetta from them. Several days into the journey, Henry runs away and the three companions go after him while Cain and Rosetta continue toward Richmond.
While Rosetta is very hostile and uncooperative, several incidents occur in which they need to provide mutual protection and care. This leads to some open conversation, and gradually, they learn to regard each other more as equals than as captor and captive.
Cain’s long-held prejudice is dissipated by the recognition of Rosetta as a warm, sensitive human being. Both of them carry searing pain which they are able to reveal and Rosetta tells Cain an appalling secret about her mother, her owner and her child. Each dreams of a better life although both feel their dreams are as unreachable as the moon.
“Soul Catcher” is set against the disparate attitudes toward slavery present in antibellum America. Cotton farmers, particularly in the South, espoused the belief that Negroes were less than human, thus making slavery acceptable. They found validation for this pernicious viewpoint in Scripture having to do with the proper care of slaves, further endorsed and codified in Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution.
Cain and Rosetta are painfully aware of this attitude as they continue their journey, careful to avoid groups of people on either side of the issue. These groups have their own agendas, including those of John Brown whose goal was to move runaways, including Rosetta, to “free communities” in the North. The author, through extensive research and documentation, has depicted this conflict well. He presents clearly the corrupting capacity of absolute power in both slave owners and those who capture runaways.How Cain and Rosetta set about to achieve their dreams in the midst of the turmoil gives the book a nice ending. The writing sparkles eloquently as warmth and compassion emerge from cruelty and depravity. “Soul Catcher” is enjoyable as well as enlightening and is well worth the reader’s time.John Whitfield is an avid reader.