Tuesday, November 17, 2009

By Carroll: Review of The Dred Scott Story

"Am I not a man and a brother?"

These words scroll underneath the figure of a slave in chains, hands held up in supplication, on the cover of an anti-slavery broadside published in 1837. The image and words are also used to great effect on the cover of the new book, Am I not a Man? The Dread Scott Story, by Mark L. Shurtleff.

Dred Scott, born into slavery as Sam Blow, was 38 years old when the broadside was published. Nine years later, with the help of former owners and others with anti-slavery sentiments, Dred began his battle for freedom. For the next eleven years, his case made its way through the Missouri court system and finally to the United States Supreme Court.

The decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford held that slaves were not protected by the constitution and could never be citizens of the United States, therefore they had no right to justice through the courts. The decision galvanized anti-slavery forces—one could say that it lead directly to the establishment of the Republican party, the election of Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War.

Who was this illiterate slave whose desire to be free set into motion events that formed our country? What conjunction of personal history with people, events, and ideas made his desire for freedom even seem possible? What kind of heart beat in his chest as he persisted in his quest for eleven years, despite discouraging setbacks?

The answers to those questions are in the pages of this engrossing book. Shurtleff's knowledge of Dred's life and times is amazing, but the real power of the book lies in the way he makes us care about Dred, his family, and other characters. The scenes he creates to bring the facts to life are interesting and often touching. One comes away with a new understanding of the profound struggle, both personal and national, that led to the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.

Given the complexity of the story, a listing of major characters and a timeline—especially of court actions—would be very helpful. This is especially true in the beginning of the book, where the action jumps forward and backward, introducing a dizzying cast of characters. I found Shurtleff's storytelling most compelling and readable when it was chronological (Part VII onward).

I was also surprised that Shurtleff began the book with the crucial scene when Scott learns that the 1850 decision granting him his freedom has been overturned. His cry, "Am I not a man like you?" lacks the emotional impact it would have if it came in chronological order. By then, readers caught up in the story and full of admiration for Dred would feel the devastation of the moment with him.

However, these are minor issues in a book that is well worth reading. It will introduce countless readers to a most remarkable man, a bright human spirit whose fight for freedom changed the course of history.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

By Carroll: Review of Alma by H.B. Moore

People read scriptures in different way at different times. They read them to study and absorb the word of the Lord to his prophets. To find inspiration and answers to questions. To enjoy understand the timeline and historical context of familiar stories.

Heather Moore has obviously read and studied the scriptures for all of these reasons. She has also read them with the mind of a writer, wondering about the story behind the story and the unmentioned men and women who are part of it.

And asking the question all writers ask when a story idea niggles in the back of their minds: What if?

The result of her study, thought, and imagination is Alma, the second book in a new series based on the Book of Mormon. The novel begins as King Noah demands that Amulon track down Alma and other believers who have fled into the wilderness following the death of Abinidi. From then on, one fraught situation follows another in this fast-paced read.

Moore uses details of ancient Mesoamerican culture to create a believable world. She paints a three-dimensional picture of Alma as a man haunted by his past but uplifted by his faith, a man who also longs for love and a family of his own. And she populates her story with an interesting cast of women who have pivotal roles in the story.

As someone who always wonders about the women behind the men in scripture, I appreciated these strong, courageous women who risk their lives to join Alma and the community of faith. (I'm very eager to read Moore's non-fiction book, Women in the Book of Mormon, which will come out this spring or summer.)

Pick up Alma for an enjoyable read that will have you going back to the correlating verses in Mosiah with heightened interest. My only caveat would be to start with Abinidi first. Because I hadn't, I initially found it hard to keep the characters straight.Happily my confusion got cleared up as I continued to read.

To learn more about Heather, go to her blog: http://mywriterslair.blogspot.com or her website: www.hbmoore.com.