Speak Right On: Dred Scott
Neighbour takes the few known facts about Dred Scott and fleshes them out into a biographical novel. Dred, descendant of griots (storytellers and oral historians), is raised by his grandmother as a “big house” servant. He witnesses slavery’s many injustices, such as his mentor, the blacksmith, being whipped to death. Dred is separated from Gran when his master, Peter Blow, moves to Missouri.
After Blow’s death, Dred is sold to an army doctor, who takes him to his new post in Wisconsin Territory. There he meets Harriet, the slave of another officer, and they marry and have two daughters. Dred lives in constant worry about his family being sold off, especially when the doctor dies. Back in St. Louis, the doctor’s widow hires them out as day laborers, supposedly keeping the money they earn as payment towards their eventual freedom. But the promise is not kept.
Dred learns from a preacher that there have been other cases in which a slave is taken north to a free state, and as a result, declared legally free. Helped by Blow’s sons, Dred files a lawsuit to gain his family’s freedom. The incendiary political fallout of the 1857 Supreme Court decision was a major cause of the American Civil War, assuring the obscure slave a prominent place in U.S. history.
The book concentrates on Dred’s life in slavery; only the last 50 pages concern the famous court case. Since some of the case’s paperwork has disappeared, and there is a lack of documentation about slaves in general, Neighbour had latitude to imagine what Dred’s life might have been like. While Speak Right On isn’t a super-compelling read, it does serve to give dimension to an important man most people know only as a name they were forced to memorize in history class.