“Counting Souls” by Donald R. Buchanan

Tom Love, the protagonist of Donald R. Buchanan’s fine novel, Counting Souls, is a hardscrabble farmer in western North Carolina who is charged with collecting the 1830 Federal Census for Macon County. His job creates a situation like The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek and The Giver of Stars, where packhorse librarians had cause to go forth and meet lots of Appalachian folks. Tom’s interesting job allows him to travel and meet a variety of citizens from all walks of life. The author includes a few pages from the census as illustrations in the novel.

Tom is a likeable character who is trying to recover from the death of his daughter as the novel opens. Though Tom hails from a wealthy family, he scorns his father’s help. He prefers small-scale farming to the rich plantation lifestyle that requires large numbers of slaves. That choice means he struggles to feed and care for his wife Sarah and two remaining children. To overcome his debts, his Uncle Robert talks Tom into becoming a census taker, which means he will be away from his family frequently. To counter that problem, Uncle Robert also talks Tom into buying two slaves to help Sarah manage the farm in Tom’s absence.

Besides Tom Love, the slave Isaiah is sometimes a viewpoint character. Isaiah was one of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves who expected to be set free upon his death as Jefferson promised. He reneged on that promise to free all his slaves, and so Isaiah is sold and separated from his wife and child. That is only one of the terrible hardships forced upon Isaiah in the story. Ellen is the second slave Tom buys and she, too, endures evil at the hands of Whites, in particular Mr. Wright. Wright becomes the main antagonist in the story—and he is despicable indeed.

Both Robert and Tom are sensitive to Isaiah’s separation from his family and make an effort to trace the wife and child’s whereabouts and reunite them. Philosophical discussions of slavery crop up periodically in the story and Tom discovers widely varying opinions on it as he goes about taking the census.

During the era of this novel, the Cherokee still occupy large tracts of land in western North Carolina, but Andrew Jackson has already set in motion the laws that will lead to the Trail of Tears. On Tom’s journey he encounters Jim Locust, a Cherokee. From Tom, Jim learns that the Cherokee won’t be included in the census because they “don’t matter enough to the White people to even count.” Nor do slaves or free Blacks count on the same page as Whites. The races are segregated even on paper.

The novel’s rather lengthy conversations about race and religion serve to illustrate Tom’s growth as a human as he journeys through Macon County, but sometimes they are a bit longer than necessary. In one particularly lovely conversation, Tom explains to his son that he believes heaven is everywhere and you can feel it if you are still:

We have to see the world in the regular way to get by. We have to work and feed and clothe ourselves and our families, so we have to be about the business of living, and that takes most of our time and energy. But now and then, if we let our mind be still, we can know that we’re part of everything. Sometimes I feel it when I’m looking up at the stars at night.

The novel also includes beautiful descriptions of the mountains, streams, and wildflowers of North Carolina.

Don Buchanan

Don Buchanan is a native Southerner who has lived in the Atlanta environs his entire life. His fondest memories were formed on his grandparents’ farm in the Appalachian foothills of North Georgia. His ancestors lived in western North Carolina and were the impetus for this novel. Buchanan is a retired corporate real estate manager.


  1. Counting Souls was a story that shook my soul. Reading your review, makes me want to grab my copy and read it again. Thank you.

  2. Steve Phillips says

    Great read, couldn’t put it down. Looking forward to your next book!

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