In Alabama in 1931, young people hitching rides on a freight train have a brawl. A group of white boys are driven from the train. Nine black youths, and two white females, both occasional prostitutes, remain on board. A posse stops the train. The white girls cry rape. The nine African Americans, who will be known to history as the Scottsboro boys, are automatically adjudged guilty, and threatened with death in the electric chair. Progressive lawyers from Northern states, possibly as interested in advancing a political agenda as in justice, flood Alabama, and a mammoth legal battle begins. One of the girls retracts her testimony and says there was no rape.
From this true story, Ellen Feldman has fashioned a novel. Several chapters are told in the first person voice of Ruby, the recanting witness, and they stand out from the rest of the book. Feldman makes us understand how ignorance and a life of deprivation prompt Ruby to falsely claim she was raped rather than admit to staying voluntarily in a compromising situation with black youths. We also see how her battered core of decency, her religious feeling, and her emotional neediness lead her to recant in return for the friendship and admiration the Scottsboro boys’ defenders seem to offer.
Multidimensional and real, neither wholly good nor wholly bad, Ruby is a marvelous fictional creation. By contrast, the young woman journalist who tells most of the story is a less convincing and engaging character, and we never really get to know any of the Scottsboro boys well. This account of a famous court case that exposed the murderous face of racial prejudice is truly gripping. But I wish more of the story could have been told in Ruby’s voice.