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.