Kay Marshall Strom,
Once Blind: The Life of John Newton
(Authentic, 2008)

Once Blind: The Life of John Newton, a biography of the author of the popular and enduring hymn "Amazing Grace," is both engaging and engrossing. Author Kay Marshall Strom traces the life of Newton from childhood until his death, from his early years as a blasphemous and foul-mouthed sailor to his years as the captain of a slave ship to his fight for the abolition of slavery in England.

Strom has a flair for storytelling and characterization, and she doesn't sugarcoat her subject at all; in fact, some of the scenes border on lurid. The slant is toward portraying Newton's eventual conversion to evangelical Christianity after an incredible string of narrow escapes from death, and one would think he'd have gotten the message a bit earlier. Strom is especially successful at bringing Newton to life on the page, which leads to a small problem.

The book is a fictionalized biography. Strom has cast it into the framework of a novel, creating dialogues attributed to the characters. The story is framed through the device of Newton delivering a sermon to tell his congregation about his sinful past. Nowhere is there any indication whether Newton actually delivered such a sermon, doled out in epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter, or if Strom created it, based on her research of Newton's life.

The issue is not so much the fictionalization of a piece intended to be nonfiction as it is clarification. One of the appendices lists Strom's bibliography, which includes three primary sources written by Newton; her familiarity with her subject is not in doubt. While the technique may be obvious to some, it may not be to others, particularly younger readers. An author's note would have been appropriate to caution the reader that some of the events and dialogues were created for the purposes of the story. Any direct quotes should have been given proper attribution.

That said, the book is accessible and appealing, and at the end tackles the issue of modern slavery. Strom presents the facts clearly and cogently, discusses what is and is not effective, and provides a list of organizations currently combating modern slavery. She also includes clear and simple actions the reader can take as well. Not only are the epilogue and the appendix educational, they bring relevance and immediacy to the narrative.

With the caveat the format aside, Strom's book is informative and inspiring and will appeal to a range of readers.

review by
Donna Scanlon

13 September 2008

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