Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Shirley Graham’s There Was Once a Slave : The Heroic Story of Frederick Douglass is a biography that reads much more like a novel. Eschewing the detail-oriented, documentary tone of much biographical writing, Graham freely invents scenes, dialogue, and descriptive details that blend to create an evocative tapestry of Douglass’ life.

The book is divided into four parts, corresponding to four stages in Douglass’ life, and the parts have metaphoric titles: “The Road,” “The Lightning,” “The Storm,” and “Toward Morning.” Each part is introduced with a verse or quote of political relevance. The parts are further subdivided into a total of twenty chapters. In addition, there is a prologue that briefly describes Douglass’ early years and provides historical context for the year 1834, when the narrative begins. In an epilogue, Graham describes her feelings upon visiting Douglass’ house in Washington, D.C.

The story is told chronologically, beginning with Douglass’ adolescence and ending with his death. Choosing to dramatize and even fictionalize the incidents and events of her story, Graham moves from episode to episode, dwelling on individual scenes with great detail. While often pausing in her narrative to provide the context of contemporary political, social, and economic developments, she seldom offers specific dates or authority for the details of Douglass’ life. Substantial attention is given to Douglass’...

(The entire section is 558 words.)