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.