Sunday, 28 February 2010

Book review : Scottsboro - Ellen Feldman

I've just been teaching the kids at school all about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights movement for racial equality in America so I thought I knew my stuff pretty well, but until this book came out, I had never even heard of Scottsboro, Alabama, or the events that unfolded there in the 1930's.

If, like me, you are unaware of the story, the basic facts are that, after a scuffle with some white male hobos, nine black teenagers were hauled off the freight train they had all been riding (and fighting) on by a posse of armed local white men. These law-enforcers were already itching to lynch the black boys but when two white girls, disguised in men's clothes, jumped off the train and, to save themselves from getting into trouble, falsely accused the black boys of gang-raping them, the unfortunate black teens were quickly tried and sentenced to death on the electric chair. This was the Deep South in the 1930's and any black person coming up against a white person didn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of getting a fair trial, let alone winning. Then one of the white girls, Ruby, withdrew her accusations, leading to retrials, appeals, and a bitter judicial battle that would last two decades.

The book is told largely from the viewpoint of Alice Whittier, a young journalist from New York who covers the case and befriends Ruby, the girl who recanted her accusation of rape. In the bibliographic notes, the author explains that Alice is a purely fictional character and talks of "setting fictional characters loose among the ghosts of history". I found the whole historical story fascinating and particularly appreciated the author explaining at the end how much is based on fact and how much is pure fiction, as the blurred boundaries are one of the aspects of "historical fictions" or stories "inspired by real events" that I often find confusing and ultimately disappointing.

The book offers a powerful and very atmospheric evocation of the racial tension that was rife in the South at this time, as well as the harsh living conditions people of all races faced during the Depression. When the media start covering the case and Leibowitz, the "Jewish Commie lawyer from the North" who epitomises everything the Deep South despises, backs up the Scottsboro Boys, the atmosphere becomes explosive as already frayed tempers reach breaking point.

Although the whole book and the whole legal maelstrom focuses around the plight of the black boys, we actually learn very little about them. From reading the book, I had the impression they were in their late teens and twenties. Having researched the real historical facts after finishing the book, I discovered that the youngest of them was just twelve years old ! But the author purposely chooses to present them as flat, stereotypical "Negroes" because, at the time, that's what they were. The Scottsboro trials became more than a fight to acquit nine boys falsely accused and wrongfully sentenced to death, becoming a political battle to bring down a seriously warped legal system (with black people unallowed to serve as jurors). The hatred of the North, the Jews, the Communists, career-minded women and the black-sympathisers boils up in a cauldron of bigotry and intolerance which eventually has little to do with the nine boys themselves, so they become unimportant pawns in their own game.

Ruby Bates, the girl who cried rape before withdrawing her accusation and campaigning for the release of the Scottsboro Boys, is a very interesting character and one who is very hard to pin down. Is she a vicious liar for crying rape in the first place or a courageous heroine for eventually telling the truth ? Does she campaign for justice out of the goodness of her heart and because she has seen the error of her ways or purely for financial gain and her twenty minutes of fame ? Should we despise her, for her heartless condemnation of the boys, or pity her for her own life full of hardships and poverty ?

I was surprised to see how such a historical case, important on a judicial and political but also humane level, could have entirely escaped my notice but, as the book suggests, the escalating war with huge numbers of casualties both of soldiers and civilians, not to mention millions of Jewish victims, presumably made the tale of "just" nine young lives pale into relative insignificance.

This is one of those books that makes you think long after you have read the final page and had me heading straight over to Wikipedia to find out the facts behind this fictionalised version.

star rating : 5/5

RRP: £7.99

Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Picador; 2 edition (21 April 2009)
Language English
ISBN-10: 0330456148
ISBN-13: 978-0330456142

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