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.
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