Thursday, January 28, 2010

book review: Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman

Scottsboro: A Novel

Scottsboro was shortlisted for the Orange Prize last year, and it's the first of the six on the shortlist I've read. The Orange Prize is an award for full-length novels written in English by a woman of any nationality. Because it's a British prize, it's UK publication date is the one that counts. The Orange Prize is perhaps my favorite award because I enjoy the books chosen as both great literature and being immensely readable. Other prizes sometimes give awards to books that are good but not necessarily enjoyable to read. I want to be challenged, but I also want to enjoy reading.

Scottsboro is a historical novel based on the true story of the Scottsboro boys, nine African-American boys who were accused of raping two white women on a train in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931. It's a story I'm sad I wasn't familiar with before starting this novel. Nevertheless, the opening scene of the novel is told through the eyes of Ruby Bates, one of the white women accusers. No rapes happened. No sex happened. In Alabama in 1931, when two white women were found hoboing in a train car with black boys and men, they wanted an explanation. It was an intense ten pages. All I knew about the book was the above cover, so I gathered it was about train travel in the 1920's or 1930's. (One of the greatest joys of reading books on my Kindle is diving right into the storyline. I'm prone to avoiding cover flaps and summaries, and they don't even appear in a Kindle book.)

From the incident, always a known falsehood in the novel, a young reporter takes over most of the storytelling. Alice is a delightful narrator. She's a single, well-educated white woman living in New York City. She's one of the first to take notice of the Scottsboro case, and spends years interviewing the key subjects, traveling to the trials, retrials and appeals of the nine defendants. Most of the story is through Alice's eyes, but Ruby often narrates as well.

I adored Scottsboro, but it wasn't always easy to read. Knowing it was based on a true story is absolutely gut-wrenching for me. I loved the character of Alice, and I loved the way Feldman placed the Scottsboro case in the context of not only Southern history but an international one.

I'm quite eager to read more books by Ellen Feldman. Scottsboro is her third novel. She's also written Lucy, the story of FDR's affair with Eleanor's social secretary. (They're all characters in Scottsboro too.) Her first novel, The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank, is, of course, about Anne Frank and Peter.

I also want to learn more about the Scottsboro case. I requested the episode of American Experience, Scottsboro: An American Tragedy from the library. I'm curious to see a visual depiction of the real-life characters of the book.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5) - it's wonderful
Pages: 383 in the print edition
Release date: April 2008
Source: I bought it to read on my Kindle

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  1. I read this last summer, and also thought it was very well-written. For a short while I thought that the reporter, Alice, was also a historical character ... I had to take a break in my reading to do some research!

    I haven't read anything else by Feldman, but I have a few of her books on my wish list.

  2. Wow this book sounds fascinating! How great to learn about a part of history you didn't know about. I'll have to look into. Thanks for the great review.

  3. I love the sound of all of Feldman's books! Thanks for your review, I'll be sure to add this one to my reading wishlist.


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