I think it’s safe to say most people are familiar with the hymn “Amazing Grace”. What you may not know, however, is the story of its author, John Newton. He had perilous experiences that led him to a place of redemption and repentance before his time as a pastor and figure of influence in the late 1700s. Exploring this time in his life, Author Jody Hedlund has written Newton and Polly: A Novel of Amazing Grace, a novel adaptation of the early story of John Newton’s life and romance with Polly Catlett. Interestingly, Polly’s influence is not often connected with her husband John (or at least not to my knowledge), yet it is present and important to his legacy. Though the novel is considered an inspired-by-true-life work of fiction, its historical accuracy and detail is astounding and enlightening.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found
Now remembered as the author of the world’s most famous hymn, in the mid-eighteenth century as England and France stand on the brink of war, John Newton is a young sailor wandering aimlessly through life. His only duty is to report to his ship and avoid disgracing his father until the night he hears Polly Catlett’s enchanting voice, caroling. He’s immediately smitten and determined to win her affection.
An intense connection quickly forms between the two, but John’s reckless spirit and disregard for the Christian life are concerns for the responsible, devout Polly. When an ill-fated stop at a tavern leaves John imprisoned and bound, Polly must choose to either stand by his side or walk out of his life forever. Will she forfeit her future for the man she loves?
Step back through the pages of history, to uncover the true love story behind a song that continues to stir the hearts and ignite the faith of millions around the globe.
As I have noted, Jody Hedlund pays magnificent attention to historical detail with this novel. She has skillfully woven the love story between John and Polly over an accurate timeline, no small feat considering the good length of time their relationship spanned before his moment of repentance and their eventual marriage. Along with this realistic relationship, John Newton endures trials and struggles, some of his own doing, while learning the gift of forgiveness and provision of God even in dire circumstances.
Both Polly and John’s personal growth from beginning to end was engaging and interesting. In particular, their spiritual arc was emphasized. It was easy to empathize with them, understanding their doubt and questions amid cultural norms. Both had misconstrued approaches to God; Polly thinking she could earn His favor, John thinking he could prove himself on his own, not in need of a God who has allowed tragedy to become his family in the path. Both of them are similar in this respect, though their distance from God stems from different reasons, yet both find their way to faith and realizations that they are sinners only redeemed by God’s grace.
What I most appreciate about Jody Hedlund is her straightforwardness and elegance in presenting a story — in this case, she doesn’t shy away from tough subjects like the slave trade and lifestyle of seamen during this era. Instead, she presents reality and frames her characters with a hope for redemption. With this book in particular I recognized an emphasis on living with integrity. It takes the little known story of John Newton’s early life and displays it with a bright light on Polly Catlett’s complimentary encouragement. The result is a story of page-turning drama with a sweet romance made all the better for the fact that it’s true.
Thank you to Blogging for Books and Waterbrook Mulnomah publishers for the complimentary review copy. This review reflects my honest opinion.