Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Am I Not a Man? (The Dred Scott Story) by Mark L. Shurtleff

A few months ago, I was contacted by the publisher of Valor Publishing Group asking if I would be interested getting an advanced copy of a book by the current Utah Attorney General, Mark Shurtleff. I immediately said yes.

For full-disclosure, part of my interest in reading this book was the fact that as a child, I met Mark's parents in Central America. I ran into them about year ago after last seeing them when I was 10 years old. Mark Shurtleff lives close to me and in one of those strange turn of events, a week before I started reading the book, there were changes in our church's congregation and Mark Shurtleff and I now attend church together. That said, I have yet to speak with him and have purposely not spoken with him until I finished his book and reviewed it.

Before starting this book, I knew nothing about Dred Scott or his importance in American history. In Dred Scott v. Sandford, the Supreme Court basically stated a black man had no rights whatsoever in America and ignored years of precedent that said once a black man was brought into a free state, he was free forever. The uproar from the decision was almost immediate and Abraham Lincoln was one of its most outspoken critics. Mark Shurtleff feels this is what propelled him into the White House and what ultimately led to battle for freeing the slaves, the Civil War.

Mark did an excellent job in explaining the great importance of this case and I felt by the end of the book that a lot of pieces of American History, some of what I felt I knew a lot about and some which I knew nothing about, all fell into place. I feel like I have a much better picture of American history as a result. I said to my husband, it is like when I go to the eye doctor and think I am seeing 20/20 but then the doctor puts new lenses infront of my eyes and realize that I was only seeing 20/40. So many aspects of American history became more focused because of this book and there is no question, I am more culturally literate because of it.

I was so impressed with the obvious thorough research that Mark did in preparation for writing this book and it is apparent on practically every page. It is obvious he visited places, spoke with many people, and spent hours researching. The book is crammed full of amazing historical references.

Some problems:

Mark combines actual facts with historical fiction, where he creates dialogue and scenes for characters. I didn't like the historical fiction aspect of it. It felt very contrived and his strength as a writer is not in creating dialogue. I understood what he was trying to do, but I am not sure he really pulled it off convincingly for me.

Also, the first third of the book jumps around a lot from 1852, when a higher court overturned an earlier ruling that gave Dred Scott freedom, to 1799 during the times Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to 1638 at Jamestown, where we learn the history of some of Dred Scott's original owners. All of this history is great in establishing historical reference for things later in the book, but it was hard to follow. I found myself having to go back pages and rethink things and I wonder if it could have been written differently where there would have been a more obvious flow. The last two thirds were more linear and at that point, I found myself having a hard time putting the book down. The story became very compelling and I marveled at how so many people put their lives on the line to help this one man become free.

Am I glad I read this book? Yes. Would I recommend it? Yes but know what you are getting into. It is not an "easy" read because of the subject matter. Slavery was and is awful.


David said...


Lisa said...

Great review. Sounds like something Donald might enjoy reading.

Carrie said...

Interesting. Perhaps lawyer husband and I will have to read that for our informal little book club.