Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman

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Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A perfectly re-spun telling of a miscarriage of justice in Alabama in the 1930s that echoed through America for the next forty years. Capturing time and place perfectly, an uncomfortable story, but a pleasure to read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 363 Date: June 2008
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-0330456142

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That is how the Scottsboro case began…with a white foot on my black hand

The quote is ascribed to Haywood Patterson, one of the Scottsboro boys. With Feldman's magic, it's hard to know whether the quote is true, or is part of the fiction. That's the difficulty when you tell stories that rely for their power on the truth of the events on which they're based. How much is the reader to believe?

Scottsboro is subtitled a novel presumably to protect the innocent and anyone who might get mistaken for the not-so-innocent creations that Feldman has inserted into one of the most shameful tales to come out of the southern states of the U.S.

Of perhaps just one of the most famous of the shameful tales.

That white foot had been running up and down the roof of a freight train from Chattanooga, just a white kid playing silly beggars but finding in the midst of it a chance to belittle a black man. The black man tried appeasement, it didn't work…and a free-for-all white-on-black scrap began. Never mind that in 1931 none of these young men had it much better than any of the others, or they'd not have been on the train in the first place. But race was another matter. The difference was everything. Back then. In the South.

Not so different though that they'd let a man fall from a train at a speed that would be sure to kill him. At least, if they were black they wouldn't. Can't help thinking no two white men would have hauled back on board a black man.

The train is stopped at a placed call Scottsboro. Whether the nature of the fight had got passed down the line and the townsfolk had turned out specially, or whether they always slowed the train just in case, is unclear. As it stops every illegally-riding hobo tries to make a run for it. They hadn't a chance.

Among them are two girls. White girls. You might have called them down on their luck, if maybe they'd ever had any such thing to start with. As Ruby puts it: I was happy that afternoon. Happy wasn't nothing usually gave me the time of day. They were lintheads: mill-workers so christened for the inability to get the stuff out their hair no matter what they tried. Mill workers who worked hard, and were paid poor, and intimidated into worse working conditions just to keep them working, and then even that dried up. So they hustled.

Wouldn't you?

That was one thing, and had landed Victoria in jail on an adultery charge already, but crossing the state line to do it…well that was something else again. The prison time would be serious this time, so Victoria has a plan to get them out of it. Just tell it like I tell it she instructs the less experienced, more naïve, apparently more honest Ruby.

And so nine black men and youths who had been riding that train are rounded up and arrested for the rape of two white women.

Over the next few years, these boys will be tried again and again for a crime they did not commit. Haywood Patterson – the toughest and meanest, so they said, and therefore by definition the leader – was found guilty and sentenced to death in the chair on at least three separate occasions. He wasn't the leader. Most of the men arrested first met each other in jail: not even on the train, but completely after the alleged event.

Ellen Feldman brings into the true story of what happened a fictional reporter, Alice Whittier, who becomes an advocate for the prisoners but also befriends one of the accusers, Ruby, when it seems she has been persuaded to do the right thing and admit the falsehood of the accusation.

Nothing was ever simple in the South in the interwar years. They'd lost their own war and they still deeply resented it. How many of the opinions were genuinely held and how many were intimidation-responses is something we'll never know, but the effects cannot be denied: the lynchings, the cross-burnings, the threats, the swung juries, these are all a matter of record.

Things weren't any simpler in the North. Much of the support for the Scottsboro Boys (and didn't anyone see the insult in the term itself?) came from the communists and the Jews. Fighting their own corners? Of course they were, but as one character points out: they're still what kept those boys alive.

I've always held that we should read fiction as one of the best ways of learning history. I had never heard of Scottsboro. My other half didn't recognise the name, but as soon as started to explain the background oh yes! I know the one. He's older than I am, is my excuse. The case was still making headlines in the 1970s, when I'd have only just started taking notice.

But it does leave that question: where does fact end and fiction begin? How should we judge such a novel? My suggestion: forget for a while that this is a specific actual case and read the novel. As a novel. It is a given that stories can be true even if the events in them are made up. Even if Scottsboro wasn't a real place, and nine men did not suffer callous injustice because of a specific lie told by a specific white girl with an eye to the main chance, but managed to stay alive and eventually walk free(-ish) because another white girl was prepared to say she lied. Even if none of that, specifically, ever happened to the named individuals, the book would still be true. Elements of this story did happen. Again and again and again. Not just in the South. Racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, are not peculiar to Alabama…and nor are their effects.

The atmosphere in which Feldman has set her tale is, however, peculiar to Alabama and it seems to me, as one who's never been there, that she captures it well. The heat, and the humidity. The parochial small-town pride. The resentment. But also the simple pleasures and joys (mostly among the poor folk interestingly enough – the richer folk don't seem to have much fun). The god-fearing nature that is bred to the bone with all its pro's and cons in the product.

The language is superb. I cannot pinpoint how it works. What is it in the way her southerners speak that differentiates them from the New Yorkers? And how does she split the New Yorkers into Jews and Gentiles? Some of the sentence structure 'is' obvious, but not enough of it to fully account for the slow, southern, feel of the Alabama sections, or the abruptness of New York. Somehow it lurks just below the surface of her words.

Whittier is the main narrator. With her access to the media-makers, the lawyers on both sides, to the prisoners, to one of the accusers, even to the wife of the president of the United States, she has a rounded view of everything that happens. Whilst she lays the clues openly all the way through, it is only towards the end of the story that we get the clear admission of her own culpability.

At times the voice switches to Ruby, written as a poor white girl might speak, in comparison to Whittier's journalistic script.

Both are telling the tale from a much later perspective, and occasionally mention events that will happen later in the story, which lends an authenticity to the telling that a simple third-person rendition wouldn't capture.

Reading the story in a year when the first black President of the United States is beginning to make his mark on the world, it is hard not to be conscious of just how far things have moved on. Strangely, I was also very conscious of how far they haven't.

An uncomfortable story that still managed to be a pleasure to read.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For more tales from the deep south, try Redbirds by Rick Bragg. You might also find Injustice: Life and Death in the Courtrooms of America by Clive Stafford-Smith an informative read.

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Booklists.jpg Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman is in the Orange Prize for Fiction 2009.


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