Wednesday, October 21, 2009
BOOK REVIEW- Am I Not A Man? The Dred Scott Story
I just finished reading the book "Am I Not A Man? The Dred Scott Story" by Mark Shurtleff. This was a powerful book.
Mark Shurtleff, Attorney General for the State of Utah, spent five years carefully researching the story of Dred Scott, an illiterate slave who sued for freedom in the 1800's. In law school Shurtleff had studied the case of Scott vs. Sanford - a case that is very significant because the Supreme Court had overturned an act of Congress. Years later Shurtleff became interested in the case again, only this time he sought to more fully understand the person of Dred Scott rather than just the facts of legal precedent. He also became very interested in the various members of the Blow family who fought so tirelessly to assist their former slave to win his freedom after having sold him off to help pay their own debts.
The book is very meticulously researched and clearly details many incidents of the time in stark accuracy according to the documents Shurtleff uncovered. While the "personalities" involved are of necessity conjecture, assigning motives, thoughts, and dialogue that are entirely creations of the author, the EVENTS that are reported throughout this book are very real.
Historical fiction is an interesting genre. With some it is difficult to sort out where the history starts and stops and when the fiction begins. This book was a strong departure from that pattern. And that, perhaps, is both the strength and the weakness of this book. There were times as I was reading it that I had difficulty assigning a "voice" to the story as it vacillated between the writer's attempt to create believable characters against the backdrop of such detailed historical accounts. Clearly much of what is included comes from the various letters, newspaper reports, court records, deeds, wills, and other tangible evidence of the times. I found myself continually switching tracks in my mind. Just when I would begin to get caught up in caring about the PEOPLE I was reading about, the tale would then segue off into various factual tangents... a detail about Francis Scott Key or a sideline about various Indian treaties. I found it distracting. YES, they helped portray a more complete picture of what was going on at the time. But for me, too often those details, even though true and sometimes quite interesting, were not entirely germane to the story of Dred Scott. So I felt the narrative was cluttered with way too much of the HISTORY and weak when it came to the FICTION.
I suspect that Shurtleff would be an excellent writer of non fiction accounts that would be fascinating to read. He is clearly an intelligent, articulate guy who has very carefully studied every detail of this time period and of the parties involved.
FICTION writing, however, has more to do with imagination. I would like to see what Shurtleff might do if he were to attempt a straight fiction piece - simply weaving a story of believable characters sorting their way through some sort of conflict or struggle. It would be fine if the backdrop were loosely based on actual events. But to mix the fiction with such detailed research was frustrating for me. I could never fully engage in unfolding of the plot enough to fully care about the characters. Juxtaposed as they were against all the detailed facts kept bringing me up short in how I responded to the book, never letting me give myself over to the degree of willful suspension of disbelief that can make fiction reading so delightful. Still, I could never entirely immerse myself in enjoying the analytical world of related facts that generally appeals to me in reading non-fiction because that kept getting interspersed with dialogue that seemed to me a bit contrived.
So I was both fascinated and frustrated by this book. In many ways it remains a good read and taught me much about our nation's history of that period that I had not known previously. It also made me hungry to know more about the Blows. I was very curious about what led them to have the moral courage to stand up for their friend Dred Scott the way that they did, at considerable risk and expense to themselves. As a follow up to this book I would love to see Shurtleff attempt a retelling of the same period exclusively from their point of view - only this time really allow himself to give way to the fiction. I believe he could accomplish much with that by staying true to the characters he clearly has much admiration for (and rightfully so) if he could manage to avoid being so married to the details of the research.
NOTE: You can read reviews of what others thought about this important book by following links to their blogs listed for the Virtual Book Tour HERE.