In White’s sixth novel (The Garden of Martyrs, 2004, etc.), a man captures a runaway slave and discovers moral qualms he’s been repressing for years.
Tracking people is Augustus Cain’s only marketable skill, but he isn’t eager to practice it anymore. The patriotic Southerner isn’t against slavery, but he dislikes the superior attitude of the wealthy plantation owners who hire him and the dangers of extracting black fugitives from the increasingly abolitionist North. Faced with a huge gambling debt and the threatened loss of his beloved horse, however, Cain reluctantly agrees to retrieve runaway Rosetta for her master, a tobacco planter named Eberly whose extreme insistence suggests “a more personal reason for wanting her back.” Judging Cain not too reliable, Eberly saddles him with three companions: the white-trash Strofe brothers and the psychopathic Preacher, who tries to rape Rosetta almost as soon as she’s caught. Like most of the other heavily foreshadowed events here, the resulting confrontation between Cain and Preacher occurs primarily to provide an impetus for Cain to acknowledge the horrors of slavery and his feelings for the proud, abused Rosetta, which make it impossible for him to return her to Eberly. Despite lots of backstory about his service in the Mexican War and love for a peasant girl who was killed for sleeping with a gringo, Cain isn’t an interesting enough character for his moral awakening to be terribly compelling. Rosetta too is sketched in very broad strokes, and Eberly is a cartoon villain. The author has nothing new to say about slavery or the mixed motives of those who supported it, though that doesn’t prevent White from indulging in long passages that explain Cain’s shifting perspective rather than dramatizing it. It’s all as obvious as the protagonist’s surname. An epilogue that shows Cain on the eve of the battle of Antietam is almost offensive, suggesting that loving Rosetta changed nothing essential about him.
Well-intentioned, but heavy-handed.