The Call of Zulina – A Review

The CFBA September 2-4 feature, The Call of Zulina by Kay Marshall Strom (Abingdon Press), goes into the top five or so books I’ve read this year.

The Story. Grace Winslow is the daughter of a late 1700s West African slave trader and an African princess fearfully known among the locals as the lioness.

Because Grace’s father hungers for respect, he pays to have Grace raised in the “London house,” built and furnished in the English style, and educated by tutors in the ways of an English lady. However, the few English people Grace knows disdain her because of her African heritage.

Her princess mother who rules the home and ultimately the slave trade also disdains her for her uselessness. Her only value, her mother believes, is in marrying another slaver who will bring money and influence into the business.

When Grace’s childhood slave friend Yao decides to run away, Grace makes plans to follow him. Instead, she ends up on the road to Zulina, the fortress where captured Africans are held until they are sold and shipped around the world.

And so begins a set of circumstances that changes Grace’s world forever.

Strengths. Kay is an experienced writer, and even though this is her first novel, she is a talented word smith. She created a protagonist who has my sympathy early on. She painted a world that felt real, gritty, unique. She gave each character understandable motives and objectives which made them believable. The story has tension throughout—conflict amongst the slaves and with the slavers, traitors on both sides, and the smallest suggestion of romance to come.

Though this is a story about a hard subject, it is also a story of hope and triumph and brokenness and change. The themes are big and powerful.

Weaknesses. I don’t really see weaknesses, but I’ll mention a couple things that others might not love.

First, the story is told in the omniscient point of view. Contemporary writing instructors frown on this, often saying that modern day readers expect the intimacy of a limited point of view. For some readers, this all-knowing narrative style may seem foreign. (Example: “Obei also knew the language of the royal drums perfectly. But even he, the firstborn of the Great and Powerful King, did not know everything.”) However, because Kay Marshall Strom is a skilled writer, I think most readers will find the point of view an invisible device.

There are also some momentous events that occur “off stage.” To include them would have made the story more graphically violent, and it already is gritty. Some readers may feel the omission, others may feel relieved because of it.

The third issue is the beginning. The story unfolds in a leisurely fashion with the stage being set and the main players being introduced, some through backstory and flashbacks. Actually these elements are consistent with the omniscient voice, and I think they work, but someone unaccustomed to this style of writing may find the opening slow.

I hope not. But even if a reader thinks so, I would hope he or she persists because this is a gripping story. An important story.

Recommendation. I think The Call of Zulina is a must read. Its theme is important, its story, captivating.

Published in: on September 4, 2009 at 10:44 am  Comments (6)  
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Slavery in the Twenty-first Century?

Two weeks ago, a missionary my church is supporting spoke briefly about her work with International Justice Mission. She spoke of a thirteen year old girl who had been kidnapped with the intention of using her as a sex slave. This girl’s story had a happy ending because the kidnappers were caught and the girls under their control rescued. The girl is now back with her family.

I’ve heard from more than one source that there are more slaves worldwide today than at the height of the African slave trading days. Here are the facts IJM states:

• According to the United Nations Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, an estimated 20 million people were held in bonded slavery as of 1999.
• In 2004 there are more slaves than were seized from Africa during four centuries of trans-Atlantic slave trade. (Kevin Bales, Disposable People)
• In 1850 a slave in the Southern United States cost the equivalent of $40,000 today. According to Free the Slaves, a slave today costs an average of $90.
• Approximately two-thirds of today’s slaves are in South Asia. Human Rights Watch estimates that in India alone there are as many as 15 million children in bonded slavery.

One person I heard speak on the subject became involved in the fight against contemporary slavery because of stories about the Underground Railroad during the pre-Civil War era. He said he believed he would have been involved in freeing slaves if he had lived in America then. But if that was true, then he should be involved in freeing slaves today.

Sometimes we need to put ourselves in a horrific scene and imagine what we would do in order to help us know what to do about the horrific of our day. Kay Marshall Strom‘s novel The Call of Zulina, the CFBA feature the last half of this week, is a story that allows the reader to think more deeply about slavery than most of us would choose to. And that’s a good thing.

Books should challenge and inform as well as entertain. This one does. Kay mentions on her Web site that writing the biography of John Newton changed her life. She gives a link to the World Changer Movement—a crusade that actually sprang out of the movie about William Wilberforce.

IJM also encourages people to take action. On their Web site there’s a tab called “Get Involved.” The great thing is, one of their choices listed on that menu is “Prayer Partner.”

Not all of us are called to mission involvement. Not all of us have resources that allow us to give to all the causes we learn about that are worthy. Not all of us have time to spend beyond our current responsibilities. But we are all able to pray. And what better use of intercession is there than to stand for the most needy, the hurting and helpless, and ask our merciful Father to intervene on their behalf.

The Call of Zulina may not change my life, but it’s helping to expand my prayer concerns.

Meet Kay Marshall Strom

Kay Marshall StromI first met Kay Marshall Strom way back when I was in college. We both attended Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. Since she was in my sister’s class, several years ahead of me, I didn’t know her well. However, I knew her well enough to remember her several decades later when I saw her at my first Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference.

With considerable nervousness (I was under the new-writer’s spell of admiration for published authors and seminar speakers!), I approached her at one of the meals and identified myself. She was so gracious and asked for an update on my family.

Soon after, though I’m shaky on the time line, I read an article Kay wrote for our alumni magazine. I was so impressed with her skillful writing and her depth of compassion and spiritual understanding.

I made a point from then on to sit at Kay’s table for at least one meal whenever I went to Mount Hermon, though my interests lay with all things fiction and Kay was a non-fiction instructor.

Then one year, Kay had a new book, written with Michele Rickett, that had just released – Daughters of Hope: Stories of Witness and Courage in the Face of Persecution (InterVarsity Press). I bought the book and found it to be a stunning, inspirational, challenging, revealing book about suffering Christians around the world. I can’t think of another book that has moved me to prayer more than this book.

Lo and behold, my path has once again crossed Kay’s, this time in the fiction world. The Christian Fiction Blog Alliance is featuring her first novel, the beginning of a trilogy entitled Grace in Africa. Mind you, this had to be a stretching venture for an author of thirty-four non-fiction books, but the subject matter is in line with what I’ve come to expect from Kay.

I’ll save my review for later, but one thing you might be interested in: the story grew out of the biography Kay wrote of John Newton, author of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Kay herself says John Newton opened her eyes. She goes on to say

My friends, we have never needed John Newton’s legacy more than today. For 200 years later, more people are enslaved than ever.

Any surprise, then, that The Call of Zulina is a story about slavery? I’ll be doing a review of the book later this week, but if you don’t want to wait, check out what the other CFBA participants are saying. (You can find a complete list at the CFBA blog). I suspect Kay Marshall Strom is an author you’ll want to remember.

Published in: on September 2, 2009 at 11:43 am  Comments Off on Meet Kay Marshall Strom  
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