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Speak Right On: Conjuring the Slave Narrative of Dred Scott Paperback – November 10, 2015
"A deftly crafted work by an impressively talented writer, Mary Neighbour's Speak Right On: Conjuring the Slave Narrative of Dred Scott is an inherently fascinating read that is as thoughtful and thought-provoking as it is fully absorbing and illustrative of one man's struggle to be perceived as a human being with all the rights and responsibilities that slavery would deny him and all who were like him. A fact-based work of historical fiction, Speak Right On is very highly recommended for both community and academic library American Fiction collections." -Mary Cowper, The Midwest Book Review
Dred Scott's legal challenge to slavery, reaching the Supreme Court and prompting the infamous ruling that led to civil war, made him the most famous slave in U.S. history. This novel offers a fictionalized account of what Scott's life might have been like, and in essence what the lives of many slaves might have been like, from the Middle Passage through the beginning of the national conflict over slavery. . . . This is an absorbing look at the relationships--voluntary and involuntary--as well as the nuances of slavery that provoke human emotions from nobility and loyalty to greed and selfishness. --Vanessa Bush, ABA Booklist
In this historical fiction, Mary E. Neighbour took on a difficult task with her debut novel, Speak Right On. Most Americans know of Dred Scott and his famous fight to cast off the bonds of slavery, but few of us know the man behind the 1857 Supreme Court case that ignited the flames of the American Civil War.
One-fourth biography and three-fourths fiction, Neighbour takes the reader on an incredible journey of dignity, accomplishment, and bonds of the mind, spirit, and heart. Neighbour fills in the gaps of Dred's life from its humble beginnings in Virginia, where he worked in the house with his Gran, then as a field slave in Alabama, on to St. Louis, the Wisconsin Territory, Illinois, back to St. Louis, then Louisiana, and back to St. Louis once again. "I was nothing more'n a mule that could talk, property writ down in a white man's book with a price after my name, and a price less than any other man slave 'cause I was such a runt."
Neighbour uses storytelling as a framing device for Dred's life. It works well. I especially like the "upriver, downriver" analogy that the author employs to dictate Dred's life. Upriver are the stories of Dred growing up; downriver are stories after he is separated from Gran and his childhood and becomes a husband and father. Narrated by Dred, his daughter Lizzie, and Gran, the story is sometimes confusing, but the attention to language and place makes the story come alive and, as a reader, I'm willing to overlook that small detail. There are some other editing problems in Speak Right On. The setting abruptly changes in the middle of one scene and, near the end, Dred is dying at the end of one chapter and dancing as a porter at Barnum Hotel at the beginning of the next. Sloppy editing aside, I give it a "you gotta read this" nod. It's a fine piece of fiction from well-cared-for slave's point of view that is reminiscent of Toni Morrison." -Julie Failla Earhart, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"Speak Right On" is a fictionalized biography of Dred Scott, the African-American slave at the center of the hotly debated antebellum Supreme Court decision that will forever bear his name. Scott was a slave who, because he had lived in the free North with his Southern master for a time, decided later to sue for his freedom on that basis. His case wound its way through the courts for ten years, eventually landing in the Supreme Court where the justices (most of them slave holders) ruled that Scott couldn't sue for anything since only citizens could bring lawsuits and slaves were not citizens. The case, which was ruled on in 1857, enraged Abolitionists and fanned the fires of the Civil War.
life didn't matter. My acts didn't matter. And when that don'tmatter, neither does tomorrow. I stopped dreaming and scheming; stopped feeling the possibilities. You could say I come to know I was a slave."
"If there ever was a book that explained what it was like tobe torn from your birth land, shipped as if you were a piece of lumber anddropped into an unknown world, Mary Neighbour's novel is at the top of the reading list. Ifthere ever was a victim of slavery that could personally convey what it waslike being owned, mastered, beaten and sold, you will find the recounting herein the direct and easy tongue of Dred Scott.
Dred Scott recalls the story about his grandmother'ssea voyage from Africa to America. Four hundred or so slave-prisoners held inthe bottom of a ship, brought up, a few at a time, to entertain their captors,and food and water withheld, causing malnutrition and even death. A new motherof twins, her milk drying up, the newborns are near starvation. She producestears, allowing the droplets to fall into the infants' mouths so that herbabies might stop their crying, an effort to soothe her own flesh and blood.Before the long, agonizing trip is complete, there will be murder, sacrifices,and suicides. Those that endure will be sold as property to the white man whocan afford the price.
Gran is one that lived to tell the tale, passing on to hergrandson the African names of their ancestors and the dustheap that, without the telling, would be lostforever. She was also the most notable person in Dred's life. TeachingDred the ways, as best she could, to be a man. Gran knew the ways of the whiteslave owners, how they whipped the black backs, sometimes just because; splitfamilies of slaves to settle debts, and hired their property out to their whitefriends and families. Against Gran's advice, Dred put stock in his owner andwent so far as to help cover-up the master's personal problems. After all ofthis, the master still did not favor Dred when he chose a girl to be his wife.Instead of a blessing from the man he had shown his loyalty to, the girl wascuffed, forced to leave, and sold to another white man. Dred would never seeher again, but his eyes were beginning to see what Gran had been saying sincehe was a child.
Dred finds himself smitten with a young slave, Harriett. Heasks permission to marry, consent is given and the two begin a life very fewslaves are permitted. They are rarely separated, have children that the masternames (secretly, the children are given African names), and on May 26, 1857,the entire family is set free. The fight for freedom was a long, heart wrenchingtime, with clandestine plans and attempts at running. And freedom could nevererase the dreadful events that Dred had witnessed. His and Gran's tale had tobe set in print.
MaryNeighbour captures details that enable the reader to feel the emotions, hearthe whip crack, and touch history as if you were there. The history and traditions depicted in Speak Right On arevery different than those we learn from American history books. The tale will, if nothing else,open your eyes and perhaps offer a better understanding of what slavery wasreally like. In that understanding, there can be hope that this history willnever again be repeated." -Sue Vogan, BookPleasures
From the Author
I hope you can imagine how happy it makes me that you read this book. Ten years ago, when it was first published, I set myself two writing challenges: (1) to describe one of the darkest periods of our national history and (2) to "speak" credibly from the first-person point of view of a slave. I hope you will share with me whether you think I achieved those aims.
I also invite you to share what this book made you feel and think about by writing a review. It would really mean a lot to me.
The first time this book was published, it was all about selling books. This time, my main purpose is to stimulate conversations about race and politics in America, with the hope that we each contribute, through informed and respectful discourse, to a more equitable society.
Thank you for reading Speak Right On,
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Youth on the Santa Fe Trail
Ms. Neighbour supersedes that omission with beautiful narration and researched understandings of the different models of slavery that Mr. Scott and his family endured. Thankfully, Scott was a man who would not be silenced. I highly recommend this read.