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Book Review: Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman

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When you read Ellen Feldman’s book Scottsboro you savor each page like a vintage wine. The story is so mesmerizing tendrils seem to wrap around your chair, so chillingly real you become frozen it its truth, and so poetically lyrical you have no doubt that you are hearing the cadence of the colorful Southern speech. Unfortunately, color in the Southern world is only black and white. Unfortunately, the truth in Scottsboro is always grey.

This work of historical fiction is based on the famous Scottsboro case in Alabama in 1931 and the Scottsboro boys who were accused of a crime they didn’t commit. It is the story of nine black boys who were on a freight train. Unfortunately, for them, that same day two white girls, dressed in overalls, were also riding the same train. What they shared in common was poverty and riding the rails, as they all tried to get from place to place.

At an unscheduled stop the train slowed down and the two girls looked out to see a mob of 40 to 50 white men brandishing pitchforks, shotguns, and at least some kind of weapon in their hands. A furious angry chase ensues as the mob is hell-bent on capturing “niggers.”

Victoria Price and Ruby Bates are scared as dogs in a thunderstorm. They know a white woman being caught with a “nigger” is worse than being one. When the men discover that they are female, Victoria begins to invent her story accusing the nine captured boys of raping her and Ruby. Ruby is the younger of the two and follows along.

Blacks in Alabama in 1931 could just as easily been strung up by a rope, but the mob, feeling a sense of duty and fairness, decide to bring them to town to be tried. Truth be told, they would rather they die in the electric chair for their alleged crimes.

What follows is the story of Alice Whittier, a New York reporter, who persuades her boss to let her find the story. Alice takes on a quest that covers several decades as she digs for the truth. Her personal life and relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt becomes part of the story. Anti-Semitism is pervasive during this era and the story covers this theme as the lead defense attorney in the second trial is Samuel Leibowitz, a Jewish lawyer from New York. The importance of the Communist Party involvement in the case is also brought out in the book.

Class divisions are blurred as the white community against the nine tries to purify the image of the two girls, Victoria and Ruby. On the other hand, the defense tries to discredit Victoria and Ruby as a prostitute and white trash.

When Ruby Bates decides to alter her testimony, there is a ray of hope for the defense, but will it be enough to break down the walls of racial hatred that are embedded in the community and Southern culture? Will the defense have a fair trial instead of the previous trial that was a travesty of southern justice?

Ellen Feldman’s writing is so deeply rich, her dialog begs to be read aloud. The voice of Ruby is brilliantly written and a treasure to savor. Not since Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird has the Southern dialect been so artfully written and emulated with such poetic craft. Ruby is a complex emotional character in flux. Yet, her speech is always entertaining and genuine, down to earth and charming with a plethora of witty unforgettable similes. 

This story may surprise and shock some who read it, but should it? The ugly truth is that Jim Crow did exist and still does today. This division of race was unfair, unjust, and hopelessly unbeatable. Books like Scottsboro are essential to facing the truth as we continue to see racial and ethnic hatred in the global arena. The greatest fear is burying the past in ignorance. Scottsboro is a hypnotic and haunting novel destined to become a classic. Highly recommended.

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