#189 ~ Scottsboro

Cover of Scottsboro

Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman

One summer day, during the 1930s at the Scottsboro, Alabama train station, police officers wait to apprehend several black men on the inbound train after word of a fight between them and some white passengers was reported.  When the train stops, two females dressed in overalls haul tail away from the police but are soon caught.  During interviews with the police, the women accuse the nine “boys” of rape.  The men were convicted on sight and were lucky to survive the wait for the trial without being lynched.  Many people, mainly those from the liberal North, do not believe that the Scottsboro Boys received a fair trial.  For Alice Whittier, who, as a female reporter and near-Communist Party member, was a minority herself, this case was the breakthrough her career needed.  She was able to gain access to the female victims and the Scottsboro Boys that others were not able to because they lacked her temperament and finesse.  While most suspected it, it was she who got Ruby Bates to admit that the Scottsboro Boys never raped her or her companion.  Alice’s articles about and interviews with Ruby are enlightening in other ways.  Alice learns that she is not free of prejudice and that the poor are not always innocent, noble victims of the capitalist world.

When I first met Alice, I wasn’t sure that I was going to like her.  She came off as overly self-righteous and, because she was certain she was in the right, assured of her vast superiority as she made her way down to Scottsboro.  That combination is a turn off.  Yet along the way there was a glimmer of something else.  Alice wasn’t blinded by her moral superiority to see her own faults, especially when she saw herself through Ruby’s eyes and gave thought to Ruby’s questions.  The woman who set off to Scottsboro to help correct “their” problem discovered that she and those like her had some work of her own to do.  She took those moments to heart and in doing so became a well-rounded character that I could embrace.

Although Scottsboro involves the events surrounding the real-life trials of the nine Scottsboro boys, it is a novel that can be read and enjoyed by those familiar and unfamiliar with these historical events.  Given the quotes at the beginning of each chapter as well as illusions made throughout the novel by either of the novel’s narrators, the end of the story is not a mystery.  It’s not completely spelled out, either.  For me, someone who either didn’t know or couldn’t remember the specifics of these trials, this worked very well.  I felt as though I understood the ultimate outcome from afar and then enjoyed it as all the pieces of the story fit together to get me there.

Despite the slow start, I enjoyed Scottsboro.  In the human condition there is very rarely a sharp distinction between hero and villain when get close enough to examine the details.  In her novel, Ellen Feldman is very open about how both sides of the aisle used those unfortunate Scottsboro Boys and their female accusers as pawns to further their own causes.  Be they Southern “good ol’ boys” or Communist Party member working for the common man, everyone has an agenda and often it is the people they are protecting or for whom lobbying who pay the price.  Feldman brought this experience to life and created an interesting and intelligent character in Alice.  I may have been put off by her in the beginning, but I’m curious about the woman she becomes after the book closes.  This is a good novel to use to open a discussion on the Civil Rights Movement, the media, and political parties and their motivations.


earlyreviewersSpecial thanks to LibraryThing and W. W. Norton & Company for providing me a copy of this book.  I was lucky enough to snag it  through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program.

Access to the Early Reviewers program is just one of the many reasons why I use LibrayThing to catalog my books online.  You should check it out.


To buy this novel, click here.

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  • At 2009.08.15 09:17, Kathy said:

    I’m like you – I know nothing about these trials. That makes me very interested in reading the book. Your review, as always, was fantastic!

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    • At 2009.08.15 11:25, caite said:

      Sometimes the best way to learn some history is with a bit of fiction.

      I will not complain again about not getting a LT Er book for yet another month…{{sigh}} 😉

      • At 2009.08.15 11:33, Amy @ My Friend Amy said:

        This sounds like a really book, Jennifer. I like it when an author can paint a true picture.

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        • At 2009.08.15 14:52, Carrie K. said:

          Great review! I enjoyed this one, too – I hadn’t heard of the trials before and was fascinated by the whole story.

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          • At 2009.08.15 17:59, rhapsodyinbooks said:

            What a wonderful review! It’s just such an incredible story! Thanks for sharing it!

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            • At 2009.08.17 19:51, nat @ book, line, and sinker said:

              i love your reviews–it’s so evident that you really put a lot of time and effort into them. this is a book i might have missed out on if not for your review. i’m adding it to my tbr tower and hope to get to it soon–i’ll let you know! 🙂

              • At 2009.08.18 14:33, Dawn - She is Too Fond of Books said:

                Wonderful review of an excellent historical novel!

                I loved the way Feldman incorporated the fictional characters (Alice and a few others) into the facts and real dialogue (and court testimony) surrounding the events in Scottsboro.

                In my review I neglected to point out Alice’s introspective manner, the way she shed some of her haughty NY icy style and looked at the situation from Ruby’s eyes. You did a really nice job of pointing this out.

                I hope the word continues to spread about this novel – that history isn’t so far in the past and it’s important that people know about it.

                • At 2009.08.19 20:54, Jennifer said:

                  Kathy and Carrie ~ I’m glad I’m not the only one who didn’t know much about these trials. You would really enjoy this one.

                  Caite ~ Learning from reading is one of the best feelings, I think. And please don’t despair about snagging a book from EarlyReviewers. Just keep trying and adding your reviews to LT. That’s the only reason I can think I get selected.

                  Amy ~ You really got a sense of how hot it was down there at the time – both figuratively and literally. I like to read about social justice issues, especially when it’s not 100% self-righteous.

                  Nat and Rhapsody ~ Thank you so much! I feel like my reviewing skills have improved over the years (well, two and a half years). I really appreciate the validation! Of course, reading a worthwhile book always helps the cause.

                  Dawn ~ HAUGHTY! That is the perfect word to describe Alice at the beginning. When someone is or comes off as being that way, it’s hard to make up for it. Feldman really did a good job with that.

                  • At 2009.09.10 09:46, b*babbler said:

                    This sounds fantastic! I just heard more about the Scottsboro story this past weekend, while watching a History Detectives on PBS (yup – I’m a geek and I embrace it!)

                    (Required, will not be published)

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