I’ve been a fan of Kay Marshall Strom’s work since reading Once Blind her novelization of John Newton’s life from slave trader to abolitionist (think “Amazing Grace.”) Regardless of whether you read Strom’s works of fiction or non-fiction, her heart for freedom, justice, and the respect of persons from all nations shines through.
In The Call of Zulina, the first in a new series of historical fiction — Grace in Africa — Strom transports us to Africa in the late 1700s. Grace Winslow is the daughter of an English sea captain and African princess, caught between two cultures and living a sheltered life. Having come to age largely unaware of her family’s involvement in the slave trade and its harsh realities, Grace encounters it first hand at the slave fortress Zulina, following her escape from the family compound and an odious betrothal.
Swept into the midst of a desperate slave rebellion, Grace finds herself forced to confront both the tragedies of the slave trade in Africa, the complicity of her mother and other Africans, and her own unknowing contribution to the plight of her new companions. Strom’s writing is vivid and irresistible. The pacing is excellent, and, like Grace, I found myself inexorably pulled along by the action swirling around me as I read.
Some of the moments of high-drama seem a bit clichéd, but that sense of no-turning-back choices and intense declarations lend the book a big-screen movie production feel; I’d love to see this title appear on the big screen. Likewise, some of Strom’s characters seem a bit too typecast. Grace’s mother, for example, is pure evil, willing to sacrifice her child without a moment’s thought for her own purposes. As a mother I found it unbelievable that there wasn’t any conflict present in her choices, as there was in those of Joseph Winslow.
The Call of Zulina can certainly be classified as Christian fiction, but Strom integrates considerations of faith carefully, mainly questioning how those who claim to know God can live in ways that sanctify cruelty. The faith of the Winslow’s house slave Mama Muco and its influence on Grace’s perspective also play some role in the storyline, but there’s no clear presentation of the gospel.
While there are some very slight hints at romance as Grace’s admiration for the powerful leader Cabeto grows, the novel’s forward momentum is carried by the search for freedom that unites Grace with the Africans imprisoned at Zulina. The blending of a diverse array of African cultures lends authenticity and additional depth to The Call of Zulina.
It’s exciting to read a well-penned novel set outside of the typically European and American settings predominant in Christian historical fiction. Anyone with an interest in the history of slavery -– particularly at ground zero –- will find The Call of Zulina a passionately written title that keeps interest high from start to finish.