Review: Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman

One of the problems with reading historical fiction is that you usually know how the story ends. You can write a book about the Titanic, but everyone knows that the boat sinks. The same is true, to some extent, about Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman: most people know at least a little about the Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men, falsely charged with raping two white women and sentenced to die in the electric chair. So, how does an author turn this into a fresh, interesting story? Feldman does it by focusing not on the boys themselves, but on the reporters, lawyers and politicians who made their careers and their fortunes on the backs of these young men. That is part of the story that we don’t know.

A little history lesson: on March 25, 1931 in Paint Rock, Alabama, a posse of white men dragged 9 young black men off a freight train. They were charged with assault, based on a brawl they had with white men on the train. Also on that train were Ruby Bates and Victoria Price. The assumption in those days was that if black men were in the presence of white women, the women were in imminent danger of being raped. Over and over in the historical accounts, it is taken for granted that with these two groups on board, rape was a given, so it is no suprise that Ruby and Victoria accused their fellow hobos of rape. The young men escaped a lynching, but they were convicted on the flimsiest evidence imaginable; all but one (a boy who was only 12 at the time of his arrest) received the death sentence.

Haywood Patterson (age 18), Roy Wright (age 12), Clarence Norris (age 19), Andy Wright (age 19), Willie Roberson (age 17), Charlie Weems (age 19), Ozie Powell (age 16), Olen Montgomery (age 17), and Eugene Williams with attorney Samuel Liebowitz and members of the National Guard.

Over the years there was a series of trials, appeals, reversals and retrials, ending with appearances before the United States Supreme Court. (There is an excellent chronology available on this website.) In the end, the Scottsboro Boys were not executed, but that didn’t really improve their lot in life. It did, however, galvanize a large number of people in the civil rights movement and pointed a spotlight at racial prejudice in the South.

Scottsboro focuses on a fictional character, Alice Whittier, a reporter for a Communist magazine. (Although the NAACP is often credited with saving the Scottsboro Boys, it was the International Labor Defense — the legal arm of the American Communist Party — that provided the attorney and the publicity.) We see her long-lasting relationship with Ruby Bates, her interaction with attorney Samuel Liebowitz, and get her take on many of the historical figures involved in the struggle, from the perspective of one of their contemporaries. Whittier keeps us involved in the story as we watch her struggle for a balance between doing the right thing and doing the thing that will benefit her the most. She sees the others who are making a buck and a name for themselves on the case and weighs the morality of it all. Even people who start off with good intentions can end up manipulating a situation for their own purposes. She is an idealist, but when her work on the case puts her in contact with Eleanor Roosevelt, she is not above using that connection, both for the benefit of the defendants and for her own good.

This is a good example of historical fiction sweeping you up in the story. I found the background information on Ruby Bates, who recanted her story, fascinating. Feldman paints a fabulous portrait of two very different young women — one of them fictional — and connects us to the story through their viewpoints. I learned a great deal of history, but I also learned a lot that is more subjective about the hearts and minds of these young women.

My copy of Scottsboro was provided by the Library Thing Early Reviwers Program; you can get your copy

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