A Review of J. Frank Norris: The Fascinating, Controversial Life of a Forgotten Figure of the Twentieth Century
As much as I try to stay up with books about J. Frank Norris, every now and then one slips by my attention. That's what happened with this book. I didn't know that it was around until I saw a copy for sale on eBay. Judging from the lack of review on Amazon.com at the time of this review I'd say many others are also unaware of its existence.
The book is written by Michael E. Schepis, whose parents have ties to Norris' ministry through attending Bible Baptist Seminary in the 1940's. It is published by WestBow Press, a self-publishing arm of Thomas Nelson Publishing. It was released in January 2012.
This book is a pretty straightforward, biography of Norris that is has an almost entirely positive view of the controversial preacher and his ministry. I think that the author may have tried to write a non-biased account of Norris's ministry, but there are several factors that give Norris a very positive image in the book. One is that the sources are decidedly pro-Norris. The main references it appears are the books by Ritchie, Tatum, and Entzminger, and I did not see one reference in the notes for the books by Hankins or Stokes.
That is not to say that this is a rehashing of material that is already available, but it does cover familiar ground. There appears to have been a lot of work put in to researching the events and many new details are added. The problem is that if you have read extensively on Norris as I have, there is little here that will seem new. There are small details here and there, but it does little to add to the legend or legacy of Norris.
In the Introduction the author states: "Every attempts is made to not give place to personal conclusions, judgements, or criticisms of the motives, methods or personality of Norris by the author, who will leave that to others." This is very true as the author's overall view in the book is free from opinion. The problem he faces, perhaps unknowingly, is that many of his sources are heavily pro-Norris. An event such as Norris' embarrassing 1947 confrontation with Louis Newton before the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis is largely seen as something done by an old and sick man suffering from the probable effects of strokes. Norris comes across as a crusading hero in this book in regards to that incident. The events with Norris leaving the Baptist Standard also appear to be sugar-coated as basically he was forced out.
On style, the book is very readable. I do not like the lengthly quotations that litter the book which interrupt the flow and appear unnecessary to me. Also I believe in effort to add freshness there are sometimes random details thrown in that just don't seem to add much in the narrative. This includes instances such as during the ant-evolution period going from chronicling Norris' involvement to providing a list of anti-evolution laws that were passed that had little-to-nothing to do with Norris.
In some ways I think this book fills a need for a Norris biography written by more modern standards than Entzminger's The J. Frank Norris I Have Known. It does the best job of any of the Norris biographies of clearly telling the story of his life and ministry.
Where it falls short is that it does not deal with its controversial subject objectively. Norris is such a complex figure that I think you could write from either extreme and be somewhat on track and still appeal to some audience.
I think you have to view this book as something of a response to the books by Stokes (the original Apparent Danger and its more prominent reincarnation The Shooting Salvationist). I don't think this was the goal, but it has the feel to me as book attempting to set the record straight without being too glowing in its picture of a controversial figure. I'm sure the galvanized pro-Norris crowd will love the book and the anti-Norris crowd will see it as simply another piece of Norris propaganda.
Where does it rate in my opinion? In spite of any shortcomings I think it surpasses Ritchie's The Life and Legend of J. Frank Norris as the one book I would recommend to someone wanting to know about Norris' life and ministry. It is a positive take on Norris, but not as over-the-top as Falls' A Fascinating Biography of J. Frank Norris. Definitely beats Entzminger's book by far, even as it quotes that book and its simliar sources heavily.
Official book website: jfranknorristhebook.com
Purchase book at Amazon.com