• Review
By – January 30, 2012

They became known as the Scotts­boro Boys — the nine very young black men who were false­ly accused of rap­ing two young white women on a train through Alaba­ma in 1931. The crime (though fab­ri­cat­ed) pro­duced more tri­als, mis­tri­als, and rever­sals than any oth­er case in Amer­i­can his­to­ry. Across the coun­try and around the world peo­ple were shocked by the South­ern mobs, by the cor­rup­tion of the state judi­cial sys­tem, and by the mag­ni­tude of the lies told by the two women. It is one of the most famous cas­es in Amer­i­can his­to­ry and yet, per­haps because there were nine defen­dants, most peo­ple do not know the details. 

Ellen Feld­man vivid­ly invokes the pas­sion and deter­mi­na­tion of Alice Whit­ti­er, a young female jour­nal­ist from New York who trav­els to Alaba­ma to get to the truth. Clear­ly Feld­man combed through count­less eye­wit­ness accounts to get her details straight; in her hands the sto­ry and char­ac­ters come heart­break­ing­ly to life. If Alice wears her heart too much on her sleeve while try­ing too hard to appear tough, it is dif­fi­cult to judge whether this is melo­dra­ma or sim­ply how peo­ple were back then. One can­not help read­ing about Scotts­boro and Alice’s obses­sion with it with­out not­ing that cur­rent jour­nal­is­tic obses­sion main­ly tar­gets celebri­ty culture. 

Feld­man deft­ly shifts the nar­ra­tive back and forth between Alice and Ruby, one of the accusers, adding depth and dra­ma to the sto­ry. The two women are so dif­fer­ent in upbring­ing, intel­li­gence, and sta­tus that jux­ta­pos­ing their voic­es flesh­es out the facts of the case in a way that nei­ther of them alone pos­si­bly could have. As in life, nei­ther of the women is com­plete­ly sym­pa­thet­ic or com­plete­ly despi­ca­ble and they each have their own agen­das to pur­sue. But Ruby, espe­cial­ly, must have been a chal­lenge to inhab­it, and Feld­man does an excel­lent job of get­ting into her head. 

The Scotts­boro case was one of the most shame­ful events in Amer­i­can his­to­ry, show­ing that black men accused of rap­ing white women in the Deep South were not pre­sumed inno­cent but in fact had to prove their inno­cence. Though it is a work of fic­tion, Feldman’s book is espe­cial­ly time­ly in light of the many accounts of peo­ple cur­rent­ly being held with­out tri­al in Amer­i­can prisons.

Sara Leopold Spin­nell is a co-founder of Trav​elu​jah​.com, a web­site that pro­motes Chris­t­ian trav­el to Israel. She lives in New York City with her hus­band and two children.

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