The judges of this year’s Orange Prize have a penchant for history woven through with fictional threads.  The success of such double stranding has to be measured by the texture of the resulting cloth. On that basis Ellen Feldman’s Scottsboro is a resounding success.   The closely-woven fabric making fact and fiction virtually indiscernible.

The narrator of this true story of colossal racial injustice and bigotry in Alabama, USA is Alice – a fictional white journalist from New York who builds a career reporting on the notorious Scottsboro case. Having earned the trust of Ruby Bates, one of two white women who falsely cry rape, she develops an unique angle on the case. Not that Alice’s prime motivation is her career – she is sincerely outraged by the all-pervading bigotry and prejudice that insists on 9 innocent young men being sent to the electric chair without a shred of evidence to corroborate the statements of their white accusers.

Certain episodes are written by Alice from Ruby Bates’s point-of-view. Ruby’s colourful “white trash” language, attitudes and Southern way of life serving to demonstrate that she was a product of her time and also a victim of the system and the bully, Victoria Price (the second white woman). Alice does a good job. I’m 80% convinced.

I won’t dwell on the history of the Scottsboro boys – suffice to say that the story told is historically accurate and the courtroom scenes pageturning. The ignorance and bigotry of the South astonishing. A lifelong fan of “To Kill A Mockingbird” I couldn’t help noticing that Sam Leibowitz wasn’t Atticus, Alice wasn’t Scout and neither was the outcome as dramatic. Such comparison, while obvious, is perhaps unfair as Feldman is dealing with a real historical case. Playing fast and loose with the plot and her characters in the interest of an artificial dramatic effect not really an option ….

although Alice plays fast and loose with her men though interestingly never tagged with the labels that are applied so easily to Ruby.   A host of  tensions and hypocrisies  are explored: north vs south, left wing politics vs right, anti-semitism, class,  as well as the obvious racial issues.   I also enjoyed the sympathetic portrait of the Roosevelts, particularly Eleanor.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable and educating read for I wasn’t familar with this particularly shameful episode. History without the dryness of a text book. The only real criticism I have concerns the rushed ending – so many years concertinaed into the last section;  a concession,  no doubt,  to the historical narrative which stretched over so many years but one which I thought weakened the structure and diluted the power of the novel.  Much of this content more suited for inclusion as an afterword.  Though maybe I’m visualising the film which is certain to follow.

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Thus ends my reading of the Orange 2009 shortlist. This has been an incredibly pleasurable exercise. I have a week to determine my winner. Separate post to follow some time before the official announcement is made on 3.6.2009.

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