Even though I love history, I rarely read historical fiction. The reason? I’d rather read a well-written historical account of real people than a book about made up people living during past events. But when asked if I was interested in an advance reader’s copy of Am I not a Man? The Dred Scott Story I agreed to read and review it since I was curious to see if Utah Attorney General, Mark Shurtleff, could pull off a compelling account of a real people and events and put them into novelized form.
Much to my surprise, Shurtleff did a good job of weaving his research with his storytelling abilities. The result is a compelling read that tells the story of Dred Scott while examining the complex issue of slavery in the United States.
(For those who need of a quick history refresher, Dred Scott was slave who sued for his freedom. The result was the infamous Dred Scott v. Stanford decision where the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that persons of African descent could not be considered citizens of the United States under the U.S. Constitution.)
Am I not a Man? gives a detailed and fascinating account of the life of Scott and his fight for freedom and equality. What makes the book worth reading isn’t just learning about Scott’s undying desire to become a free man, but the human face Shurtleff puts on Scott, his family, his supporters, and his enemies. People are always complex creatures and Shurtleff does a good job of making Scott and others come alive in the book.
Shurtleff also does an excellent job of describing the complex issue of slavery and the strong emotions it evoked in people on both sides of the debate. After reading Am I not a Man? it’s easier to understand why the issue tore families apart and let to the costliest war the United States has ever fought.
Since Shurtleff is an attorney, he does a great job of unraveling the reasons behind the Supreme Court’s decision and examining the legal and political consequences—the biggest one being the election of our nation’s greatest president—Abraham Lincoln. But even when talking about reasons for the decision, Shrutleff is able to telling them in such a way that the reader is seldom, if ever, bored.
My only complaint with the book is I wanted to know how much literary license Shrutleff took some of the characters and certain incidents in the book. Shurtleff does go out of his way to say that the book is historical fiction and based upon real people and his own research and that some liberties had to be taken—just not how much. (So, Mark, if you ever read this, I’d love to sit down with you and talk about how you weaved this story together. It’s more to satiate my own curiosity about the writing process.)
Despite this one issue, I found the book to be a worthwhile read and would recommended it not only to those who enjoy historical fiction but also to those who enjoy stories of people with unconquerable spirits to fight injustice and inequality.
The lessons of Am I not a Man? are just as relevant today as they were during Scott’s life. Freedom is something that is easily taken away but not easily regained. The fight for freedom is difficult to obtain and often takes a lifetime of blood, sweat, and tears to achieve. Scott’s story is a good reminder that freedom comes with a price and we should always be vigilant to protect it.
Four stars (out of five) for Am I not a Man? The Dred Scott Story by Mark Shurtleff.
UPDATE: The publisher is classifying Am I not a Man as an historical novel rather than historical fiction. The history is accurate but the literary license Shurtleff was in the dialogue.