Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Am I Not a Man: The Dred Scott Story by Mark L. Shurtleff

I do a lot of work for a private school near me—editing and typesetting their textbooks. I especially love working on their history books. So the story of Dred Scott is not new to me.

What is new is this fictionalized account of Dred Scott's life, and the lives of those who helped and supported him. I've always been touched and inspired by this man and his fight for freedom. When Valor Publishing asked if I wanted to be part of their book tour, I gave them a very loud YES!

Written by Mark L. Shurtleff, who obviously researched this book very well, this is the only fictionalization of Scott of this scope and magnitude that I am aware of. (This is a big book at 534 pages!)

I want to say that I enjoyed this book but that might be a little misleading. In places, it's very hard to read because of the brutal mistreatment of Scott and his family, as well as the other slaves. Shurtleff doesn't sugar-coat it at all and it hurt my heart. But I was once again impressed and inspired by the people who faced all odds to do what was right and who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom.

If you're unfamiliar with the history, this book covers the story of Dred Scott and his fight for freedom.
An illiterate slave, Dred Scott trusted in an all-white, slave-owning jury to declare him free. But after briefly experiencing the glory of freedom and manhood, a new state Supreme Court ordered the cold steel of the shackles to be closed again around his wrists and ankles. Falling to his knees, Dred cried, "Ain't I a man?" Dred answered his own question by rising and taking his fight to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Dred ultimately lost his epic battle when the Chief Justice declared that a black man was so inferior that he had "no rights a white man was bound to respect."
Dred died not knowing that his undying courage led directly to the election of President Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Shurtleff's treatment the Dred Scott story jumps around a bit and it might be a little hard for some readers to follow. It starts with Scott as an adult, then goes back to his childhood, then back to adult, then back to another time in his past. It also follows the story of the white families who helped him and what led them to be the type of people they were—again jumping from the current story to history and back.

It's also a tad confusing because many of the characters were named after family members, which was common for that time in our history. There's not much the author could do about that, but I wish a timeline and family trees had been included at the back of the book to help us keep the characters and events straight. (Perhaps in a future printing?)

The writing itself varies from fascinating, when Shurtleff is actually telling the story and creating a scene, to a little long-winded when we're getting a review of history. Some scenes seemed to be inserted into the book simply to give us the history of the time, and these drag a bit. However, the scenes focusing on Dred are captivatingly wonderful and realistic, and the descriptive language is often quite beautiful and touching.

Even with the slower spots and the sometimes confusing timelines, I recommend this uniquely American story to everyone. It's an important leg of our journey toward equal rights for all men and women. I believe that everyone over the age of 14 should be very familiar with the Dred Scott case and Am I Not a Man is a good way to bring that history to life.

Am I Not a Man: The Dred Scott Story by Mark L. Shurtleff is available from Amazon.

You can download and read the first two chapters HERE.

*Free ARC copy of Am I Not a Man provided for review by Valor Publishing.


Tristi Pinkston said...

Thanks for your review, Karlene!

Belladonna said...

I for one would LOVE to see a second printing of this book with one key revision: I want FOOTNOTES for his source material so I can sort out which parts are fact and which parts are fiction. Also I agree with you it would be very nice to include a family tree and timeline. Probably the thing that would have helped me the most would have been more of an explanation in the beginning of what the style of the books's not the same as historical fiction, but rather DRAMATIZED history - telling real facts but embellishing them with conversations attributed to real people. I struggled with that a bit. Still...I was utterly facinated by so many aspects of this book. I am totally impressed by the level of research Mark put into this work. It definitely made me look at aspects of our nation's history in a whole new way!

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