Ellen Feldman’s novel Scottsboro is based on the trial of the Scottsboro boys where nine black youths were accused of raping two white women on a train in Alabama in March of 1931. Eight of the nine were initially found guilty and sentenced to death. The case was later heard by the United States Supreme Court in 1937, and although the lives of the nine were saved, it was almost twenty years before the last defendant was freed from prison. The case has historical significance because for the first time, a mass movement of blacks and whites (led by Communists and radicals) was successfully able to beat the Jim Crow legal system.
Feldman’s fictional retelling of the story introduces the reader to a female journalist named Alice Whittier who gets assigned the story and travels from New York City to Alabama to interview the two women who made the accusation of rape: Ruby Bates and Victoria Price. Both women come from poverty and have been forced to prostitute themselves to survive. Alice feels some empathy towards Ruby, a woman who appears to feel conflicted about the lies she has told. During the actual case, Ruby testified against the boys in the first trial, then later reversed her testimony in the subsequent trials.
The novel unfolds primarily through the voice of Alice, although Feldman also gives Ruby a chance to narrate the story in some chapters. I found Ruby’s voice the more compelling of the two. She is uneducated and highly prejudiced, and yet she seems to have a social conscience. Her extreme poverty and ignorance drive her motivations early in the book. She later becomes a sympathetic character when she tries to do the right thing.
“Ruby Bates would have broken your heart,” I said. “When you see what her life has been like, you can understand why she did what she did. All she’s known is poverty and misery and deprivation.” – From Scottsboro, page 137 -I expected to really love this novel and instead I found it oddly lacking. Perhaps it was my inability to connect with the primary narrator. Alice reveals little of herself and feels a bit cardboard as a character. At times I felt Feldman was using Alice more as a literary device to tell history, rather than a fully developed character with conflicts of her own. There were times I wished Feldman had chosen to eliminate Alice altogether and instead tell the story from the opposing points of view of Ruby and one or more of the boys.
Because this is an historical case and the outcome is known, I believe Feldman needed to give the reader something surprising or compelling to enliven the plot. Instead, I found the novel lacked adequate tension in order to keep me satisfied and involved in the lives of the characters.
Scottsboro explores the themes of racism, antisemitism, feminism and social justice. Readers who are familiar with the Scottsboro case will not find much new information within Feldman’s novel. The research is thorough and Feldman does an admirable job of laying out the case – but often the novel feels like a piece of non fiction rather than a work of fiction.
Scottsboro was short listed for the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction.
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book through Library Thing’s Early Review Program.