Picador, New York, 2008
From my TBR stack. On the short list for the 2009 Orange Prize.
It is difficult taking a piece of history and turning it to fiction. Helen Feldman has done that by taking a racial motivated event from 1930’s America and using it to create a powerful historical novel.
In 1931 nine black teens ranging in age from 12 to 19, jump a train traveling from Tennessee to Alabama, end up in a brawl with some white men and are accused of raping two white women. The arrests and subsequent trials of the Scottsboro Boys drew national attention.
Scottsboro is told in two voices. One, Alice Whittier, a reporter from New York City sent to cover the initial trial, is a whip-smart, well-educated white women from New York City with a trust fund. Distanced from her family and involved in a sexual relationship with her boss she is thrilled to be offered the story. The other, Ruby Bates, is one of the accusers, manipulated by her “friend” Victoria Price and considered “poor white trash” by members of her own community.
The case is a magnet for the national media and for the Communist Party who hope to recruit more members from the south. The C.P. sends lawyers from International Labor Defense to stand as defense attorneys for the accused.
Knowing some of the history of this case, including the fact that the crimes did not occur, does not detract from Scottsboro. Feldman includes many of the actual participants in her novel, using quotes from articles, reports and interviews as epigraphs for each chapter. She gives voice to the politicians, reporters, lawyers and defendants.
Ruby and Alice are central to Scottsboro but historical elements of the 30’s America add strength to the novel. The descriptions of Jim Crow lynchings, prison environments , the rampant racism, anti-Semitism and sexism pervasive throughout the country and the political maneuvering by the courts, the government and the Communist party are woven throughout and, for me, add to the sense of historical truth.
Feldman also includes other pieces of 1930’s American history. The depression, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, Hooverville and The Bonus Army all have a place here. Alice tells the story from the future, reflecting on all that has happened to the country, to the 9 defendants, to Ruby and in her own life since that fateful train ride from Chattanooga.