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Scottsboro - Book of the Month

by Ellen Feldman

On March 25, 1931, on the Southern Railroad freight run from Chattanooga to Memphis, a dramatic incident occurred that served as one of the sparks that ignited the Civil Rights movement in the US.

Nine young black men were accused of the rapes of two white women, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. On the train that day, catching an illegal ride on the freight train were the nine black youths, two white women, and a number of white youths. An altercation occurred between the two groups of young men, resulting in most of the white youths being ejected from the train by the black youths. Several of the white youths then told the nearest stationmaster that they had had an altercation with a gang of black youths. The stationmaster at the next stop prepared for their arrival, and a posse of white men armed with guns grabbed all black youths they could find on the train and took them to jail in Scottsboro. Victoria Price then claimed that she had been raped by several of the black youths. Word quickly spread and a lynch mob gathered, prepared to storm the jail and kill the youths. Given the situation, the governor of Alabama was forced to call in the National Guard to protect the jail and the authorities pleaded against mob violence by promising speedy trials and executions.

In the acknowledgements at the end of her novel Ellen Feldman writes “Setting fictional characters loose among the ghosts of history is a dicey business.” How right she is. Historical novelists can get it so wrong presenting skewed and over-romanticised versions of events. Not so this author. Her book is a tremendous achievement.

In order to tell the Scottsboro story Feldman creates a wonderful character in Alice Whittier, a young, sharp, fast-talking New York journalist who is desperate to report on the case to prove herself as a humanitarian and as a woman. Her editor finally relents and allows her to go to Alabama to cover the trial. This is no mean feat for a young attractive white woman – and a Jewish liberal to boot! Alice feels (somewhat naively) that she can get to the root of the story by befriending one of the accusers a young poor, white cotton-mill worker, Ruby Bates. These two are the narrators of the book and Feldman cleverly contrasts the story of the two women’s lives alongside the details of the case.

SCOTTSBORO is a volatile mix of racism, sexism and anti-Semitism in a society that was overwhelmed with poverty caused by the great depression.

Read our interview with Ellen Feldman.


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