Ellen Feldman


(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky APR 21, 2008)

"Even after all these years, the injustice still stuns.  Innocent boys sentenced to die, not for a crime they did not commit, but for a crime that never occurred.  Lives splintered as casually as wood being hacked for kindling.  Young manhood ground to ashes."

The history of the Scottsboro boys is well documented. On March 25, 1931, nine black youths were riding the Alabama Great Southern freight train when they got into an altercation with a group of angry white men. When the nine "Negroes," some of whom were in their early teens, got off the train, they were arrested for allegedly raping two white women. In this semi-fictionalized account, Ellen Feldman provides the shocking details of a shameful episode in our nation's history, putting the events into their political, social, and economic context. She demonstrates the noxious effects of anti-Semitism, misogyny, and racial prejudice in the Deep South, and incorporates the stories of some of the individuals who played key roles in what would ultimately become a cause célèbre.

There are two first person narrators. One, Alice Whittier, is a product of the author's imagination. Whittier is a tough and ambitious journalist, as well as a feminist with leftist leanings. Her reporter's unerring instincts lead her to believe that her work on the Scottsboro story might further her career. As Clarence Norris, one of the defendants, said, "For lots of folks, us boys was nothing more than rungs on a ladder." He made a good point, since lawyers, judges, "do-gooders," Communist party members, and other hangers-on shamelessly exploited the defendants and their accusers for their own ends, while the victims suffered emotional and physical torment that would continue for years.

The other narrator is Ruby Bates, a pitifully poor seventeen-year-old mill worker who is functionally illiterate. Victoria Price, Ruby's close friend, persuades her to go along with the fabricated accusation. Because of the bigotry that prevailed in the Deep South during those years, all-white male juries willingly ignored the glaring inconsistencies in Ruby's and Veronica's testimony. The first trial and subsequent retrials occurred against the backdrop of the Great Depression, a time of crushing poverty when sixteen million Americans were unemployed and two hundred thousand young people under twenty-one wandered from place to place like hoboes. For the downtrodden Ruby and Victoria, sudden notoriety transformed them into overnight celebrities. Strangers bought them new clothes and showered them with attention. For the first time in their lives, they felt important. Victoria was the more hardened of the two (she "had a mean streak a mile wide") and she never did recant her statements. Ruby, on the other hand, came to regret her lies; she worried that her eternal soul would "go to torment" in the hereafter.

Scottsboro is a beautifully realized portrait of an era when lower class white people were so browbeaten that they vented their frustrations on those who could not fight back. However, this is more than a fictionalized account of a terrible miscarriage of justice. It is also an engrossing tale of a fearless journalist who dares to tell the truth, no matter how unpopular it makes her.  There are a few lighter moments when Alice takes time out from her hectic routine to pursue her romantic interests.  Feldman adds color to the narrative by vividly describing FDR's ascension to the presidency at a time when Hoovervilles dotted the landscape.  The country gained two leaders when FDR took office; his wife, Eleanor, became a driving force for equality and justice in her own right. 

Ellen Feldman consistently enlightens and entertains us.  In addition, she forces us to take a hard look at who we are. If during a period of intense racial hatred, we had been on a jury judging the Scottsboro boys, would we have had the courage to acquit them? Or would we have yielded to the pressure from our local community and taken the path of least resistance? Feldman's evocative dialogue (written partly in southern dialect), absorbing plot, and touching depiction of the plight of the most vulnerable members of our society make this an unforgettable work of historical fiction.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 14 reviews

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About the Author:

Ellen FeldmanEllen Feldman was born in 1941 and grew up in northern New Jersey. She and attended Bryn Mawr College, from which she holds a B.A. and an M.A. in modern history. After further graduate studies in history at Columbia University, she worked for a New York publishing house.

She writes both historical fiction and social history, and has published articles on the history of divorce, plastic surgery, Halloween, the Normandie, and many other topics, as well as numerous book reviews. She has also lectured extensively around the country and in Germany and England, and is a sought-after speaker to reading groups both in person and by telephone.

She lives in New York City and East Hampton, New York, with her husband.

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