Thursday, January 28, 2021

Soul Catcher by Frank Herbert

Spiritual thriller of Native American vengeance
Frank Herbert, author of
Dune, is one of the most highly regarded science fiction writers in the history of the genre. Soul Catcher, published in 1972, is the only non-science fiction novel that Herbert published during his lifetime. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Herbert made friends with members of the Native American community and became interested in Indigenous affairs. Soul Catcher is a reflection of those concerns and an expression of outrage over Native American oppression.

The story takes place in the state of Washington, near the Pacific Coast. Charles Hobuhet is a young Native American graduate student in anthropology. (His tribal nation is never specified.) His sister committed suicide after being raped by a gang of white men. This drives Hobuhet to plan an act of retaliation against white society. He withdraws from white America, embraces his Indigenous heritage, and adopts the Native name of Katsuk. Posing as a camp counselor, he kidnaps one of his campers, David Morgenstern, the 13-year-old son of the Undersecretary of State. Leaving notes behind as a political statement, Katsuk draws David deep into a remote wilderness area with the intention of killing the boy as a ritual human sacrifice.

While Herbert’s novels, such as the Dune series, often juggle multiple plot lines from different character perspectives, Soul Catcher consists of just one continuous story line that runs throughout the book. As he often does, Herbert opens each chapter with a fictional epigraph, here consisting of brief quotes from law enforcement officers, journalists, and family members. Beyond these epigraphs, however, the focus remains permanently fixed upon the relationship between Katsuk and David and their adventures in the wild. There is a trippier side to the story that deals with Native American mythology and Katsuk’s communications with the spirit world. Some mystical events in the story are open to supernatural interpretation, but never exclusively so. As he proved in the Dune books, Herbert is very skillful at rendering psychological imagery, visions, and the like. There is quite a bit of such interior drama in Soul Catcher, for which Herbert probably draws as much on Freud and Jung as he does on Native American folklore and religion.

Katsuk is essentially a terrorist, but the reader sympathizes with him because he is acting out of rage against the repression and genocide of his race. Even so, nowadays a novel with a Native American villain would likely have a hard time finding a publisher. I’d like to think, however, that literature and film give rise to enough villains that there is occasionally room in the rogues’ gallery for a person of color. Another mark against the book, by today’s standards, is that Herbert interprets Native American culture through his white perspective. If a Native American author had written Soul Catcher, it likely would have garnered more long-lasting attention and acclaim. Herbert’s close friend Howard Hanson, an elder of the Quileute tribe of Washington State, did not approve of this novel. In my opinion, however, Herbert should be commended for the problematic, challenging, and uncomfortable aspects of his narrative when he could have just taken the easy way out by delivering a feel-good story of racial understanding.

Unfortunately Herbert’s son, Brian Herbert, in his biography Dreamer of Dune, spoiled the ending of Soul Catcher for me. Even though I knew what was coming, however, I still found this narrative riveting. Combining elements of wilderness survival and crime fiction with an impassioned plea for Indigenous rights, Soul Catcher is a compelling and thought-provoking novel that is better than many of Herbert’s non-Dune science fiction books.

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