Saturday, November 14, 2009

Book Review -- Am I Not a Man? The Dred Scott Story

Am I Not A Man? The Dred Scott Story Am I Not A Man? The Dred Scott Story by Mark L. Shurtleff

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dred Scott: for me he was a forgotten footnote from an intro to Constitutional Law or American history class, taken so many years ago. Who was he? Why was he important? Why can’t I remember?

Mark Shurtleff, in his debut novel, Am I Not a Man? The Dred Scott Story attempts to answer those questions as he rediscovers the man, born a slave, who changed the course of history by suing, unsuccessfully, for the right to be free. In 1846 he sued for his freedom on the grounds that residing in free territory had made him free. Eleven years later his case reached the Supreme Court, where it was decided on March 6, 1857. Chief Justice Roger Taney read the majority opinion declaring that Dred Scott was not a person but a piece of property.

This novel is meticulously researched and enormous in scope: from his birth in Virginia, his ownership by the Blow Family, his travels with the Blows and his sale to Dr. Emerson, to his final judgment in a Missouri courtroom and ultimately, the Supreme Court, there is no detail spared in this narrative. The author seems to include every historical figure from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison to Andrew Jackson, Robert E. Lee and US Grant; even the Prophet Joseph Smith makes an unexpected and unlikely appearance. It was a soup-pot of characters including family genealogical histories and a myriad wives, husbands, friends, and in-laws. So many, I had a difficult time keeping them all straight.

As a parallel to Dred’s story, the author details the lives of President Abraham Lincoln and Roger Taney, the Chief Justice who would write the majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sanford, denying Dred his freedom. As he explores the ancestors of these two individuals, somehow, in a work of historical fiction, our current president is mentioned. It was an awkward reference, that didn’t seem appropriate in a work of “fiction.” Similarly, the events of September 11, 2001 are alluded too after the British attack Virginia and Maryland – completely shocking me out of the novel.

However, one of the more successful sections of the book was the account of Peter Blow’s Virginia Militia service and Dred’s support as they and the militia defend Virginia against the attacking British forces during the War of 1812. The imagery of “Red Coats” marching through the mud as they advanced on Craney Island was extremely well done. The author also creates a vivid account of Dred’s relationship with his wife Harriet and their children, Eliza and Lizzie (although, I often wondered, “who names their children both essentially the same name – Elizabeth?”). Their love and devotion to each other and their daughters was tangible on the page. Additionally, and most importantly, the final chapters that detail the legal battle fought by Dred and his lawyers were paramount.

Although the range of this novel needed streamlining and editing, the author did a decent job in creating a life for Dred Scott, a man whose struggle has been forgotten by many in my generation.

Book source: publisher

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Tristi Pinkston said...

Thanks for your review!

Janice said...

I felt the same way about the Barack Obama reference and very unnecessary.

And, I did think the addition of Joseph Smith was a strange but worked better than some of his other references. In all, I think the book just needed a better tight edit. Great review