The book follows the life of Dred Scott, a slave born in Virginia into the household of the kindly Blow family, who treated their slaves like family members. With the death of the family patriarch, Dred is inherited by one of the Blow sons, who through drinking and financial misfortune, transforms from a dear friend of Dred into a violent master.
Dred is ultimately sold to an Army doctor, who treats him well. Dred serves as his medical assistant and is generally treated with respect, partly due to Dred’s veteran status fighting against the British. Dred’s owner is transferred to Illinois, a free state. Unknown to Dred at the time, if a slave owner willingly takes his slave to a free state, the slave is legally made free. A few years later, Dred and his owner return to Missouri, a slave state.
This sequence of events sets the stage for the Dred Scott case. When Dr. Emerson dies, Dred is inherited by his daughter Irene. Irene ultimately moves to Boston, leaving Dred in Missouri with her brutal anti-abolitionist in-laws. Dred sues in court for his freedom, supported by the Blow family, who still keep in touch with him and deeply regret not having freed him when they had the chance. The lawsuit is based on the fact that having lived in Illinois with Dr. Emerson officially should have freed Dred, and the law clearly stated that “once free, always free” even after returning to Missouri.
The law was clear and the court found in Dred’s favor, making him a free man. This would turn out to be only a temporary condition, however. His owners appealed the decision to Missouri’s highest court, which ignored the law and ruled against Dred, returning him to the bonds of slavery. With the support of his friends and the abolitionist movement, Dred appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a stunningly horrifying and blatantly racist decision, the highest court ruled not only that the Missouri high court had ruled appropriately, but that slaves were not human – only property – and therefore did not have standing to sue in court. Further, the majority opinion stated that people of African descent were so inferior that they, even if free, could not be citizens of the United States.
Although personally devastating to Dred Scott, the supreme court decision was ultimately a boon to the abolitionist movement. It was so outrageous that it polarized the country and directly led to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President and to the eventual emancipation of all slaves.
I picked up this book thinking that it would be a typical work of historical fiction. After reading only a few chapters, it became clear that it was more than that. Shurtleff has done a meticulous job in his research of the life and times of Dred Scott. The level of historical detail in the book is beyond anything I have ever seen in historical fiction. It actually prompted me to ask the editors, “What is this? Is it history, or is it fiction?” The response was that it is “dramatized history,” a categorization which is quite apt. Shurtleff’s book carries the erudition and gravitas of a history textbook, but is made infinitely more readable through meaningful dialogue, action and description.
While immersing the reader in the detailed legal and social historical contexts of this famous legal case, he tenderly exposes us to the hearts and souls of the people involved. It takes several chapters to become accustomed to this unique literary style. At first, I found it somewhat jarring and confusing, particularly the way the timeline jumps around. Additionally, the long passages of history tend to slow down the narrative at times. I was nearly a third of the way through the book before I became acclimated to the style and was truly pulled into the story and characters.
As is often the case with historical fiction, it was occasionally difficult to determine which events actually occurred, which events were just embellished, and which were fabricated by the author for literary effect. The copyright page of the book explicitly states that the incidents are based on historical accounts, but that the author has taken liberties for the sake of storytelling. The extent of these liberties, of course, is impossible for the reader to know on an incident by incident basis. However, I’m not quite sure how the author could have easily resolved this problem without using footnotes, which would have been equally distracting to the narrative.
Shurtleff had a tremendously difficult task of describing the historical events from the victimized point of view of slaves in a meaningful way – without overdoing it. For the most part he succeeded in this task, but on a few occasions he crossed the fuzzy line into melodrama. Despite this, the author effectively brings the characters to life for the reader, and masterfully treats the character of Dred Scott, an illiterate slave, with the proper dignity and respect that he deserves as one of the most important players in U.S. history in the fight for equal rights under the law.
At over five hundred pages, this is not light reading. Yet it is important reading. Every American should know the story of Dred Scott and his fight for freedom in a legal system that was absurdly stacked against him. But Shurtleff’s book is more than just history. The reader cannot help but be uplifted and inspired by the themes of loyalty, familial love, tenacity, courage, and the dignity of human life that are woven continuously into the narrative. I highly recommend this book.
Title: Am I Not a Man? The Dred Scott Story
Author: Mark L. Shurtleff
Publisher: Valor Publishing Group
Pub Date: November 2009
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