If you’re at all familiar with me, you know I have minimal tolerance when it comes to Christian art. Too often it’s just a flimsy marionette of a story held up by obvious strings of preachiness. I’m happy to say this is not the case with The Calling of Jesse Turner, a historical fiction novel by Kenneth Wyman.
STORY: Jesse Turner’s family farm is too small to own slaves, but in 1800s Maryland, slavery is just a fact of life, the law of the land, and a benevolence to those poor black folk who need masters to guide them. Jesse is a little confused by these rules, but he has enough on his plate: he’s being called up to help Aunt May on her farm and be the man of the house while her husband is away.
But when he visits her home, he ends up meeting with runaway slaves and learning the truth of their dire situation. As his world unravels around him, Jesse will have to decide what he believes, and which people truly need protecting.
First off, the world building is fantastic and realistic. With slavery stories, it’s easy to paint the enemy in cartoonish colors, racists for racism sake, but Wyman mostly steers clear of that, and realistic racism is all the more chilling.
For example, a preacher gives a fiery sermon on loving your neighbor, yes even Yankee neighbors. Yet he later says Blacks don’t count because they’re naturally less human than Whites. Jesse’s own dad says their family fought in the Revolutionary War and that there’s nothing more sacred than a man’s right to live his own life. Yet he dismisses slavery because the law says it’s okay, so that means it’s right, doesn’t it?
This allows Jesse to be a more interesting and complex protagonist. He’s twelve years old, inheriting this “look the other way” mindset, picking it up piece by piece because he trusts the people who educate him. This means he doesn’t just drop his beliefs at the first challenge, nor is he a generic good guy. He has to grow out of his own world, layer by layer. Not only does this make for engaging storytelling–there’s always another challenge to his beliefs–but it allows Jesse to make wrong choices and deal with the consequences.
Also, Wyman has done an exemplary scene weave, meaning each step of the story naturally launches off the last one and adds something crucial, and every part of the story is in its perfect place.
For example, a villain appears out of nowhere halfway through the story, which is normally bad. Yet in the world Wyman sets up, this man’s presence is entirely logical. Plus, it would not have made sense for him to appear earlier; he arrives right when the story has room for him. This also allows the “antagonist” of the story to begin as a mere idea, then focus into a single entity, which later grows into an intense conflict not only of people, but ideals.
Character, world, themes, and plot, are always built up wonderfully, and each chapter adds something new and exciting with good twists and turns to keep the reader engaged. The writing itself is simple without being dumb. It’s an easy read, and I was invested throughout. And the religious themes, while prominent, appear naturally and work with the rest of the story.
WHAT NEEDED WORK
I said that most of Wyman’s pro-slave characters are believable, but in Chapter One, there’s a slave overseer who jumps straight into cartoonish territory, punishing a slave in an over-the-top manner that’s hard to buy. Thankfully, he’s only in chapter one, and the rest of the characters are far better.
The only other issue I really had was the Quaker aunt’s old English. I’m not an expert, but I believe the grammar of the thees and thous was frequently incorrect. It’s unfortunately distracting for a fair chunk of the book.
The Calling of Jesse Turner was a good read, and a surprisingly well-structured story with a full world, a great character growth, and appropriate villain whose enmity for Jesse grows wonderfully. And the book manages to be a story about slavery and God that is neither shallow nor gratuitous nor preachy.
CONTENT RATING (for those who care): PG-13. Some blood and violence, but nothing crazy. Uncomfortable imagery concerning slave conditions, including references to rape.
NOW GO READ!
The Calling of Jesse Turner is currently available on Amazon Kindle and Kindle Unlimited. You can download the Kindle app for free here. Wyman hopes to have a paperback version available soon. Click here to see the other books Wyman has available, too.
Wyman donates a portion of the sales for each of his books to the International Justice Mission, a non-profit battling against human trafficking, child prostitution, and other abuses against the poor, orphans, and widows of the world. You can learn more about this ministry at IJM.org.
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