Find all the other IFLS book club commentary on Mrs. Dred Scott here.
Find the next book club book here.
Maneesha Deckha from UVic sends us her thoughts. Maneesha’s also going to be featured on the blog in the next week or so, since she was tagged by Daphne Gilbert in Daphne’s profile, so here is a link to Maneesha’s UVic page for now. Maneesha’s take on the book is different from mine – and made me realise how sometimes reading critically can mean you miss as much as you gain. I lost so many of the moments Maneesha describes in my reading, because I was looking for something that wasn’t there. A good lesson.
I am so pleased that Sonia picked this book. I hadn’t heard about it until it was announced as June’s official selection and it would have been exceedingly unlikely that I would have picked it up on my own as historical works never top my list of books to read, either academic or fiction.
Lea VanderVelde has converted me with Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery’s Frontier. I learned so much from this meticulously researched and wonderfully narrated account of Harriet Scott’s life leading up to the infamous case.
There are many things to appreciate in the work, not the least of which is VanderVelde’s painstaking assembly of disparate historical records involving a vast cast of characters. VanderVelde communicates these details in a narrative form that is truly fascinating and fluid.
I felt as if I was reading a historical novel, especially when VanderVelde described the domestic routines and social lives both when Harriett is living in the Taliaferro household on the frontier and when she is taken to St. Louis and hired out to a socially popular young couple. But I felt that it should not be so entertaining to read. I found that I was having flashbacks that I didn’t want to have – to reading the Little House on the Prairie series as a child during the descriptions of life on the frontier and to watching Gone with the Wind as a teenager during the descriptions of the military/society life that Harriett and her family were exposed to as slaves to well-connected families.
I soon found myself wondering: Where were the accounts of brutality and hardship? VanderVelde, of course, does not seek to underestimate the injustices of slavery or of the implications of the colonial encounter for Native Americans. Indeed, the chapter on the making of the 1837 treaty between the government and the Ojibwa leaves no doubt for the reader as to the unfairness of the terms and the exploitative manipulation of the Ojibwa by the American Fur Company in pursuit of their capitalist interests. It is not really until the middle of the book, however, when she is describing the entrenched racial lines in St. Louis and the practices of the slave-traders there, that VanderVelde permits a similar contemplation of the injustices the Scotts would now suffer on a daily and system basis.
A reason for this might be VanderVelde’s observations that, comparatively, the life Harriett led, even as a slave on the frontier, but within the prominent household of government Indian agent Taliaferro, was certainly more sheltered than that which blacks endured below the frontier and in the South. It was also less harsh than the life experienced by Native Americans and other individuals, though free, who were not housed in government or military compounds and had to find ways of surviving on their own in the merciless frontier winters where outside provisions were scarce. VanderVelde makes numerous references to how many times tribe members came to the residence for food and how it must have been Harriett who gave it to them.
Another reason for the implicit but understated account of the everday suffering and injustices of having one’s life, labour and body appropriated by others is precisely their quotidian and ever-present nature. It might be too difficult otherwise to dispatch the details VanderVelde needs to to fully outline the swirling social and political circumstances informing Harriett’s day-to-day life and life trajectory.
From this point on, the book focused on Harriett’s life and the litigation she and her husband pursued. In this portion, VanderVelde retains the incredibly close attention to detail by explaining as much as possible how the litigation must have unfolded, the likely motives for all parties involved, and the legal obstacles and personal hardship Harriett and her family must have encountered on a daily basis because of the momentous decision to sue for their freedom.
With each turn and twist of the grinding lawsuit, and surrounding political agitations against free blacks, I wondered how much more could Harriett and Dred endure as freedom litigants? What must it have been like to move between prisons and alleyways, subsisting in awful conditions, amid pestilence, poverty and the continual threat of violence and apprehension, while trying to raise two daughters?
VanderVelde does an impressive job of imagining, where the absence of written records does not fill in the gaps, what Harriett’s responses were to the drawn out legal process and the uncertain legal status of her and her family. Yet, I found myself wishing for revelations of Harriett’s own thoughts and reflections.
I liked that VanderVelde made use of what little of these she had recorded evidence of to introduce and close the book. For me, it left Harriet’s imprint on the book, that and the very last 4-line paragraph stating that Harriett died in the same alleyway housing she lived in during the trial – “less than five blocks from the courthouse” where she had first filed suit. It is characteristic of VanderVelde’s crisp and efficient style throughout for her to give us the details of Harriett’s death in a few words after 324 pages of closely unraveling the details of her life, but to fill them with poignancy.
And the very last line that follows is similarly moving, reminding the reader what VanderVelde stated at the onset: “It is amazing what can happen when an individual comports herself as if she is indeed entitled to justice and holds fast to the possibility.” Indeed, it is. For this inspiration alone, not to mention the academic edification and historical immersion that comes from this ambitious tome, Mrs. Dred Scott was so satisfying to read.