Wednesday, November 18, 2009


by Mark L. Shurtleff

When offered, I leapt at the chance to receive a pre-release copy of this book and write a review. “AM I NOT A MAN?” the first novel by Utah’s Attorney General, Mark L. Shurtleff, has generated a substantial amount of buzz, and for good reason. The author’s research about Dred Scott’s life and the era in which he lived, is phenomenal, particularly as it’s observed through the prism of his battle to escape slavery using the American judicial system. The storyline is educational and tender, and the topics of the Constitutional guarantees of liberty are again passion-points in America. For these reasons and many others, “AM I NOT A MAN” is an important book that should be on our shopping lists this year.

Most school children have had some introduction to the man for whom the infamous Supreme Court ruling, “The Dred Scott Decision,” is named, but Mark L. Shurtleff’s exhaustive research transforms a vague history lesson into a powerful example of hope, courage, and dignity under fire, reminding us why that landmark Supreme Court case was required text. The highest court’s ruling, “that a black man was so inferior that he had no rights a white man was bound to respect,” chills us today, highlighting the dangerous consequences that occur when men bend the Constitution to achieve an agenda.

Dred Scott was born a slave named Sam Blow, but his life was a montage of extraordinary experiences, propelled by a mind and heart that could never be enslaved. He was connected to the most important events and people of his day, and his battle to hold the legal system’s “feet” to the Constitutional “fire” drew the entire nation’s attention. Underlying the precedent-setting legal chronicle is the simple, tender story of a man seeking what every person seeks—love, a family, self-determination. For years, Dred fought to prevent his family from being split apart, and to spare his young daughters from the brutality and debasing abuse subjected upon most female slaves. With the help of his white benefactors, and after years of suffering, Dred won his fight and achieved his dream of freedom, but his victory was short-lived when his case was overturned on appeal. Following more years of delay and further appeals, Dred’s case was heard before the United States Supreme Court, where the justices’ decision was not made to uphold the law as much as it was intended to calm the gathering storm. It failed on all counts, stripping away the Scotts’ freedom, denying all Negroes the standing afforded to other Americans, providing the platform upon which Abraham Lincoln rose and escalating the call to war.It is a painful saga.

Truly, “AM I NOT A MAN?” is more than a biography. It is a sweeping panorama of American history, and Dred is in the thick of it. I regret that no historical notes were included in this book. I would have loved to follow Mr. Shurtleff’s leads for further study, and to draw the line where the history ends and the fictionalized portions exist.

For example, a painful exchange occurs between fellow slave owners, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, over the immoral compromise they had each accepted in order to secure passage of the documents needed to establish and maintain the United States—the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The great irony is that these “definers of American liberty,” are discussing their regret over the institution of slavery as they arrive at the Blow family plantation the night Dred “Sam Blow” Scott was born a slave. Mr. Shurtleff delivers a fascinating literary moment, but I would have loved knowing where fiction and fact met during that exchange. Another curious connection exists between Dred and his boyhood friend, Nat Turner, the slave whose murderous revolt would spell agony for slaves across the map. Again, historical notes would help separate the extraordinary facts from the fascinating fiction.

Let me note, however, how extraordinarily exhaustive Mr. Shurtleff’s research is. During the five years I’ve conducted the research for my Free Men and Dreamers series, I’ve covered many of the issues, places and people that fill “AM I NOT A MAN?” Mere weeks ago, I returned to Point Comfort where Dred Scott fought during the War of 1812, and then, as I read Shurtleff’s account of that battle, I was impressed with the care and attention to detail the author took with this small chapter in Dred Scott’s life. That level of historical integrity permeates the work.

“AM I NOT A MAN?” is not an easy read—literally or emotionally. In his effort to incorporate all the wonderful history he has uncovered, the author frequently becomes a historian instead of a novelist, shifting time periods and interjecting long passages of fascinating background info that slow the read for those who come merely seeking a historical novel. Emotionally, the story is painful and graphic in places, perhaps necessarily so, but parents should be advised before handing the book to a younger reader.

None of these issues trump the value or importance of this book. It is a painful story that chronicles the best and worst traits of the human spirit, compelling the reader to place themselves in the shoes of Dred Scott or his brave benefactors. We turn the last page, determined to seek and defend liberty at any cost, and that’s what makes “AM I NOT A MAN?” one of the most important books I’ve read this year, and a novel I highly recommend.

Hardcover: 534 pages

Publisher: Valor Publishing Group; 1st edition (November 3, 2009)