Received yesterday to review for Front Street Reviews.
Hardcover, (c)2006, 350 pages.
From the back cover:
"Who was Dred Scott, other than one of America's most famous slaves, born on a Virginia plantation around 1800? History cannot answer that question because no one bothered to record even the most basic details about the man at the center of one of the country's most pivotal Supreme Court Rulings--one that pitched the United States into Civil War.
Speak Right On, a fictional slave narrative, traces Scott's journey from orphaned, destitute, illiterate slave to a man defining his own truth, sharing his story with all who will listed. Dred Scott's strength of character, artful storytelling, and keen insights protect his family and result in ultimate victory. That is his freedom, and he requires no court to help him find it.
Mary Neighbour's brilliant debut novel--which balances historical authenticity with vividly imagined details--is heightened by the gift of her astonishing ear for dialect."
When I was initially offered the opportunity to read a novel about Dred Scott, I was eager to expand my limited knowledge of such an important figure in our nation's history. I felt I owed my ignorance to either a failed public school system or my own inattention in American History class. As it turns out, the reason behind my lack of knowledge is most likely due to our lack of information as a country. Because of Scott's slave status (or lack of status) and because most slaves, Scott included, were illiterate, there are few recorded documents regarding his life despite the incredible influence he had on the destiny of the United States of America.
From the court documents and other various resources that are available, we know that Dred Scott was a slave who sought freedom through legal means. With the assistance of the sons of his former master, Scott took his case to the Supreme Court to sue for freedom for himself and his family. In this monumental court ruling, it was decided that because blacks were not considered American citizens, they did not have the right to sue. Though Dred Scott remained a slave, the sons purchased the family from their owner and set them free. While in Scott's situation, he seemed to have fought a losing battle, in actuality, the ruling regarding his own freedom enraged abolitionists and set the acts into motion that led to the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency and consequentially, the Civil War.
Mary E. Neighbour has picked up where history leaves off with her 2006 novel SPEAK RIGHT ON: DRED SCOTT A NOVEL. Neighbour takes the pieces of Scott’s story and fills in the gaps to present a picture of the person Dred Scott might have been. Though a work of fiction, Neighbour has such a skill for breathing life into characters, the reader sees through the eyes of Dred Scott as if reading from Scott’s own journal. Had he been literate, Scott himself could have written the book as an autobiography. It is both a celebration of tradition and family, and an outlet of mourning of lost love and freedom.
Through his grandmother, Scott became a griot, or African storyteller. To ensure the heritage of his family was preserved after his death, he related his tales to his daughter, Eliza, to be recorded. After both have passed, younger daughter Lizzie finds herself sharing the stories with her own son, Harry.
The author begins the stories from Scott's perspective, as if the reader were looking over the journal he and his daughter created. As the book progresses, the author moves back and forth between Scott's words and the elaboration of a narrator. The two flow so smoothly together the reader really doesn't notice the transition between the two. The reader has no trouble at all deciphering the slang and vernacular that would have been used during the time period. It is difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction, which shows that Neighbour has proficiently fused them together to create the image of one man's experiences.
The story progresses chronologically through Dred Scott's life, from his birth through adolescence and finally to the troubled man he becomes. Experiences that might have shaped Scott's character, from the horrific to the inspirational, are punctuated by his own thoughts and reactions. The reader is not spared from the injustices slaves endured. Brutal beatings, rapes, and torture are woven in to the chapters as they would have been in Scott's daily life. Neighbour provides some relief in the form of Gran, Scott's grounding force and mentor. Gran provides Scott with steady words of wisdom and sometimes harsh awakenings to reality. "Big and strong makes the white folk nervous. Big and black be half of what got your papa sold away. I give thanks every day that some white man ain't likely to look at you and feel threatened by the sheer might of you."
The reader will be surprised to find this is Neighbour's debut novel, as the writing style is that of an accomplished author with years of experience and published works. Not surprisingly, her short fiction has won numerous awards. In SPEAK RIGHT ON, she has given voice to an inanimate name in the pages of history. Through her words, the reader becomes privy to the thoughts and emotions of an historical icon. History truly comes alive, thanks to Mary E. Neighbour.