Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman is a historical novelization of events that happened in Scottsboro, Alabama and the resulting trials and appeals. In the midst of the Depression, a fight broke out between black and white hobos on a train. When the train stopped in Scottsboro, nine black teenage boys were stopped for assaulting white boys. Two young white women had also been on the train, and rather than be accused of being “with” the “colored” boys, they came forward and accused the nine black boys of rape – rapes that didn’t even happen.
The novel follows two women involved in the case: the fictional Alice Whittier, a journalist sent to cover the trial; and Ruby Bates, one of the women on the train, who later had an attack of conscience and admitted that she had lied about the rape. Feldman deftly fleshes out these two women and the circumstances that shaped their lives and their choices.
Up until about the halfway point, I thought I would be giving this book three stars. It took about that long for the story to really take off and draw me in, to make me care about the characters. Once I was about halfway through, I was hooked, and didn’t want to put the book down until I knew how things turned out for those nine boys, for Ruby Bates, and for Alice Whittier.
As I read, I couldn’t get past my anger at the injustices in our “justice” system. I know that, comparatively, the United States has a great justice system, but that system failed the Scottsboro Boys miserably. Ms. Feldman also shows the nuances of bigotry, how it can exist in small, unconscious ways, even in those of us who consider ourselves “enlightened.”
Ms. Feldman is especially good at writing descriptions and nuances of feeling, like this scene describing one of the Scottsboro boys’ experience on death row:
The first sign that an execution was on the way would be the quiet. Most of the time the noise in the death house was deafening. It was bad enough during the day, but worse at night. Daytime was taunts and jeers and mouthing off. Night was moans and screams and threats and prayers. The cacophony was like a big jazz band with everyone playing off-key, and all the instruments out of tune, and the whole bunch of them trying to drown out one another with different riffs on the same misery. Except when there was an execution on the way. You could tell someone’s time was coming by the way the silence began to build. Before an execution, you could hear a pin drop in the death house at Kilby, or the state chaplain coming down the hall singing, “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home…” Every time a man went to the electric chair, that damn preacher came down death row singing. He went on singing while they strapped the man in. “Two white horses, coming in line, coming for to carry me home.”
Clarence said the preacher was the only black man he ever hated. “What kind of a black man sings to another black man on his way to the chair about two white horses coming to carry him home?”
Eighteen times Clarence sat in his cramped cell that was barely bigger than a closet, and listened to the preacher coming down the hall, and watched the condemned man go by. Sometimes the man would hesitate in front of Clarence’s cell. Sometimes the poor bastard would try to break away. He knew he didn’t have a hope of pulling free, but his body could not help trying. The struggle was a reflex. When that happened, Clarence turned away. He tried not to when they walked on by. He thought he owed the men that, a last look into another black face before they died, a real black face, not that Uncle Tom preacher. So he forced himself to stand on his side of the bars, his side for the moment, and watch them walk by, until the reflex got them, if it did. Then he turned away and stood with his head down and his hands hanging at his sides until he heard the green steel door clang shut. After that, he could not see anything, but he could hear and he could smell, and maybe that was worse. The human imagination is a fearsome thing.
This is a great read, especially for lovers of historical fiction and those interested in the Civil Rights Movement and the Depression.