Inside the courtroom, rows of long windows ran along two walls. They were closed against the noise of the square, and the yellow shades were drawn, but midday light filtered through, cooking the air. An American flag and another for the state of Alabama hung limp on either side of the judge’s bench. … Instead of a jury box, two rows of chairs that swiveled and tipped to allow the jurors to make themselves comfortable were bolted to the floor. In front of each row, a brass pipe, also attached to the floor, served as a footrest. Spittoons stood at regular intervals, each surrounded by the familiar corona of hardened tobacco juice and saliva. (p. 208)
As the title implies, this novel is about the Scottsboro boys, a famous US civil rights case from the 1930s. A group of black men — boys, really — were accused of raping two white women on a train. The case was fraught with racism and questionable legal processes that denied the boys a fair trial. Appeals continued for several years. Author Ellen Feldman describes these events through Alice Whittier, a fictional news reporter, and Ruby Bates, one of the two white women. She paints a vivid picture of Alabama in the 1930s: the climate, the people, and the extreme racism.
Readers unfamiliar with the case will enjoy Feldman’s ability to bring history to life. As historical fiction, however, it doesn’t quite pass muster. The best of this genre (or, at least, the ones I’ve most enjoyed) go beyond the basic facts and delve deep into the historic characters, embellishing where facts are scarce. Scottsboro provides factual information comparable to Wikipedia’s article on the Scottsboro boys. But Alice Whittier is one-dimensional; a vehicle to advance the plot and fill the time between trials. Her storyline was like a superfluous wrapper around the heart of the book. I wasn’t interested in her romantic relationships, or the skeletons in her family’s closet, because I knew them to be complete fiction. This would have been a better book had Feldman used an actual journalist in the story. Instead the result is something not quite history, and not quite historical fiction.