Distractions. Folks in 1930’s Alabama are suffering the terrible effects of a country in the throes of the Great Depression, trains overflowing with a nomadic society that travels place to place in search of work, hardscrabble days defined by lack and the cruel demands of expedience.
On March 25, 1931, a posse of white men converges on a freight train, pulling off nine startled and terrified black boys. Whatever the mob’s first intention, it is quickly diverted by the appearance of two young white women, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. Selling their favors for enough money to survive another day, the girls are caught in an uncompromising situation, the cleverer of the two, Victoria, claiming they have been raped by the blacks.
Eager to assume the worst, the crowd delivers “the Scottsboro boys” into the local jail, where they begin a nightmarish journey trough a biased legal system and the Northern sentiment that arises in outrage to see real justice done.
New York magazine reporter Alice Whittier convinces her boss to sanction a trip to Alabama, where she interviews the two life-hardened women the Southern males are defending. Alice quickly realizes both women are lying, but only Ruby appears vulnerable to any discussion of the circumstances that have turned them from scorned females to victims embraced by sympathetic townspeople.
In this one incident, the imagination of a troubled nation is captured, a drama that will consume the public and the courts for decades to come. Scottsboro is Feldman’s testament to a divided nation and its desperate need to find distraction from the grueling realities of everyday life, the American dream trampled in the dry earth of poverty and neglect.
Focusing on the blatant bigotry of 1930’s America, various factions represent their interests, but those put unfairly into the penal system remain there, their meager solace that they are not the prisoners walking through the door of the death chamber. Mixed with politics, the subject of race, long central to this society, becomes a heady brew where careers are made and broken, where Jim Crow reigns unfettered, the country locked in a battle that is as divisive today as it was then, albeit more subtle.
In 1976, the last Scottsboro “boy” is pardoned by Governor George Wallace after the Voting Rights Bill is passed. At sixty-four, Clarence Norris is the only living member of the group, the others either dying behind bars or subject to the random fates of a disinterested world. The beauty of Feldman’s novel does not derive from the sad ending but from the relevance of the Scottsboro incident and the deep psychic scar that marks this nation’s history.
In spite of one reporter’s perceptive revelations about time in place and the characters who make history, Feldman leaves the reader with troubling questions: How much has really changed? Has a once-divided country ever completely come back together as one nation? In times of war, we know the answer. Other times, there are frightening echoes of old feuds and cultural inequities, ominous as an unexplained shadow on an X-ray.