Michael White, a Pushcart nominee for his short fiction, has written four previous novels, each one featuring compelling characters caught in unexpected plot twists spawned by the vagaries of human nature. His latest focuses on Augustus Cain, a veteran of the Mexican-American War who makes a hardscrabble living catching runaway slaves and returning them to their owners a soul catcher in slave terminology. Cain is good at what he does, but doesn't particularly enjoy it; in fact he'd had his belly full of the whole stinking business. But he is forced to make one last hunt when he loses all his money and his beloved horse in a poker game to Mr. Eberly, a Virginia tobacco farmer who is missing two slaves, Henry and Rosetta, and will write off Cain's debts upon their return. The scene is thus set for the captivating and enlightening Soul Catcher a pre-Civil War historical saga that quickly becomes a page-turner. Cain, inwardly a sensitive soul who reads Milton in his spare moments, is accompanied on his odyssey by a threesome of misfits: the Strofe brothers, one slow, the other brutish, and Preacher, an independent contractor whom Cain perceives as coarse and foul-mouthed, illiterate as a stump. This disparate group follows the slaves' path north from Richmond and eventually to John Brown's settlement in North Elba, New York. They sneak Henry away by eluding Brown and his men, and next it's on to Boston, where Rosetta has found a safe house, and Cain finally understands why Eberly is so intent on getting his wench back. She's a beauty, newly pregnant and determined not to return her baby to slavery. Her sad story of Eberly's sexual abuse of both her and her mother somehow shocks even the worldly Cain; from that point on his journey becomes not just one of monetary necessity, but a problematic moral dilemma.
With Soul Catcher, White has penned a historical adventure, a romance, a perceptive commentary on slavery's ills and a thoughtful character study all wrapped up in this highly recommended novel. Deborah Donovan writes from La Veta, Colorado.