This novel is set in America in the years leading up to the American Civil War. Augustus Cain, a Southern man and a veteran of the earlier war with Mexico, is a ‘soul catcher’ – that is, he hunts runaway slaves and brings them back to their owners. He wants to give up the profession, but has lost his way in life, and spends his time and money on alcohol or laudanum, women and gambling. When he can’t pay a gambling debt to a wealthy businessman, he reluctantly agrees to track two of the man’s slaves, which have run away.
The journey will take him into the northern states, accompanied by a group of men who he is not sure he can trust. The terrain and bitter conditions make the journey tough, and the danger he faces from the abolitionists in the north make it even tougher. But that is nothing compared to how difficult he finds things when he locates the slaves – and in particular the young female slave named Rosetta. Cain finds himself questioning his beliefs and his way of life, and wondering if any amount of payment can be worth bringing Rosetta back to the south for. Suddenly, he has a big decision to make – and faces mortal danger whichever path he chooses…
I really enjoyed this book. It felt a little slow to start off with, but before I knew it, the story had pulled me in and I was eager to know what would happen to the main characters. It was some feat on behalf of the author to make the reader feel any sympathy whatsoever for a main character who believes that slavery is, if not desirable, certainly acceptable. However, despite the distaste I felt for Cain’s beliefs, I did feel that he was a character who most readers would end up rooting for.
The descriptions of the the different parts of America which Cain and his companions (other employees of the businessman Eberly to whom Cain owed money) crossed in order to find the slaves were rich in detail, and very evocative, and the book blended character, plot and description very well. The famous abolitionist John Brown also appeared in the book as a lesser – but important – character, reminding the reader that although the main characters are fictional, the struggles and bids for freedom made by many slaves, were all too real.
It isn’t perfect – Cain is something of a stereotype, and another character Preacher is a typical ‘baddie’. My favourite character was Rosetta, who displayed incredible dignity and strength of character, despite the dreadfully unjust hand that life had dealt her. I certainly felt that Rosetta was a beautifully drawn character, and very easy to care about.
Overall, this was a hugely readable book. It might not be for everyone – parts of it moved slowly, particularly in the first part, and the subject matter can be disturbing – but I ended up becoming absorbed in it, and would certainly seek out more work by this author.