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.

1 comment:

Jim said...

I had no idea that Utah's attorney general was an author. Were you aware that he recently withdrew from the senate race because of family health issues?