This is a tale of good and evil, of making moral choices. In pre-Civil War Virginia,
Augustus Cain is a gambler, though not a very good one. In order to pay off a substantial poker debt he agrees to retrieve two slaves. Soul Catcher is a name given to those who perform such work and Cain is a pro. He is sent north to find a male, and most importantly, an octoroon female for Mister Eberly, a wealthy landowner. Cain is an interesting character, educated some, and totes a copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost for light bedtime reading. Eberly sends three of his employees along with him. Preacher is an ignorant sadist with no redeeming characteristics. That, in addition, White depicts two real clerics in a very negative light says something about his view of religion. This is a journey-of-self-discovery work, as Cain is confronted with what he has done and what he has become. The aptly named octoroon, Rosetta, is the key that opens him up to self-re-evaluation. She points out to him that life is about making choices, not just coping with what life deals out passively.
There are occasional markers that point the way to upcoming events and restate themes. He quotes Milton here and there. There is an image of a dog or wolf trapped in ice (p25); what appears to be a stick is really a snake (p50) calling to mind not only the image of danger but the film The Ten Commandments; a hawk is harried by two small blackbirds (p 102). This last is particularly predictive as the soul catchers encounter a group of men known as blackbirds. These are people who capture blacks, regardless of their legal status and sell then into slavery. A group of such harry Cain and Rosetta later in the novel. “The crow, smaller by half, had held its own (against turkey buzzards vying for a rattlesnake carcass), seemed even to have the upper hand,” reinforces the notion that the smaller (slaves) were able to hold their own against larger forces (slavery). There is a blind seer, name not noted, who predicts that Cain will be responsible for two souls and will face a difficult choice. Cain is shot in the side and the head when the blackbirds come after Rosetta, calling to mind Jesus’ wounds. When talking in code about runaway slaves, they are referred to as sheep, calling to mind Odysseus’ ploy for escaping Cyclops.
This was a pretty good book, but I felt that it was a by-the-numbers effort. I found very little here surprising at all. Never was there a moment when I though, “Wow. I never saw that coming.” Still, it is a fast, enjoyable read, worth the time expended. It is disappointing in that it might have been better, but is certainly good enough.