Scottsboro – Book Review

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. – from Scottsboro, page 1 –

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.

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    • Amused on January 12, 2012 at 20:31

    Like you I thought this book would have been really good. Thanks for your honest review though because now I know what to expect should I read this.

    • Laura on January 13, 2012 at 03:03

    I felt exactly the same way about this book. Alice was completely flat. As you say, I think Feldman needed to introduce something to liven the plot but Alice wasn’t it.

    • zibilee on January 13, 2012 at 07:33

    I haven’t heard much about this book, but it’s interesting to me that you found part of it so dry and instructional, especially when it is supposed to be a fictional endeavor. I don’t know much about the case, but don’t think that this would be the book for me to explore it with. I hate static and flat characters, and sometimes too many scenes with them will totally ruin a book for me. Thanks for sharing your forthright opinion on this one. It was appreciated!

    • Becca on January 13, 2012 at 08:26

    I wonder why she chose to fictionalize this instead of writing it as a creative non-fiction book? Perhaps part of you dissatisfaction with it could have been allayed had you not expected the characteristics of a novel.

    Certainly the subject matter is important, and it’s definitely a story worth telling.

    • Andi on January 13, 2012 at 08:33

    This sounds like a good one — great historical premise, indeed — but I’m sorry it fell a bit flat. I can certainly understand that feeling disconnected from the narrator can take a large toll.

    • Wendy on January 13, 2012 at 08:43

    Leah: It had such great potential…

    Laura: Just went over and read your review – yup, we are COMPLETELY on the same page with this one.

    Heather: You’re welcome – it was so dry for me…not at all what I had expected.

    Becca: Yes – I agree. When an author decides to write a fictional account of an historical event, I think they need to do more than rehash the historical event. I agree that the subject matter is really important…and the book had so much potential. I still think that had she written this from a different point of view, it would have been better. I loved her novel The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank because she took one of the historical characters and imagined his life…that was great.

    Andi: I just ended up not really caring anything about Alice who felt more like a secondary character than a primary one.

  1. I’m disappointed to see the book was lacking because the subject really interests me.

      • Wendy on January 25, 2012 at 09:24

      Kathy: Don’t let my review stop you from reading the book – some readers loved this one!

  2. I think I’d prefer to read a very well-written non-fiction book on the Scottsboro trials. The historical truth alone is compelling enough.

      • Wendy on January 25, 2012 at 09:24

      Lisa: I agree!

    • Molly on January 14, 2012 at 08:18

    This is the time of year when I teach To Kill a Mockingbird to my 9th grade English class. This sounds like a terrific resource book for me to enrich those lesson plans!

      • Wendy on January 25, 2012 at 09:25

      Molly: Oh yes, To Kill a Mockingbird and Scottboro would go hand in hand.

    • Amy on January 15, 2012 at 09:29

    I’m not so sure, after reading your review, that I’ll read this book. I don’t likeuninspiring, flat characters and Alice doesn’t sound like she’s exciting at all. I thought this book would be very good and, although the case it’s based on sounds interesting, it doesn’t sound like a really interesting story.

    Thank you for your honest review, Wendy, I really appreciate it. I’m sorry you were a little disappointed by this book.

      • Wendy on January 25, 2012 at 09:26

      Amy: You’re welcome. I am with you – I need a vibrant narrator and Alice didn’t do it for me.

    • Trish on January 15, 2012 at 10:49

    It sounds like a fascinating read and I’m sad to say I’m not familiar with the history behind this one. I do know the frustrations with not being able to connect well with the narrator and feeling like something is missing. Will keep my eye out for an audio version.

      • Wendy on January 25, 2012 at 09:26

      Trish: You know, this one might be better as an audio. I’ll watch for your thoughts on it!

  3. I’m sorry you didn’t like this one! It made my top 10 of 2010, but what I found most interesting about your review were your thoughts on Alice. I utterly adored and she remains one of my favorite literary characters! I’m drawn to journalist as people, but I found her life so dynamic I wondered if Feldman had created her or if she was a real person too. Conversely, I thought Ruby’s narration was my least favorite part of the novel. I enjoyed the initial chapter where the events on the train were detailed, but after that, I preferred Alice’s perspective on her interactions with Ruby.

      • Wendy on January 25, 2012 at 09:27

      Carrie: It’s funny, isn’t it, how what works for one person does not work for another. I know that you are not alone – many readers loved Alice and this book…it just didn’t work for me.

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