I wrote this review of a novelization of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Scott v. Sandford several years ago for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but it never appeared in the paper. The book is Two Men Before the Storm: Arba Crane’s Recollection of Dred Scott and the Supreme Court Case that Started the Civil War. The review is a remnant of my "postmodern" phase.
“Historical fiction” is a slippery genre.
On one hand, postmodernists might claim that the term is redundant. All “history,” they would say, is to some degree “fiction”—facts conveniently rearranged and reinterpreted to suit the political aims of history’s “winners.”
On the other hand, traditionalists would hold that fact and fancy are mutually exclusive. There is a world that never was and the world that was, and never the twain shall meet.
Complicating matters is one simple fact: most of what is marketed as “historical fiction” is neither good history nor good fiction. Sketchily drawn characters and anachronistic speech, attitudes and actions—to say nothing of the bodice-ripping raunch of the “historical romance” subspecies—have marred some of the better-selling examples of the genre.
Wisely, novelist Gregory J. Wallance avoids these pitfalls in “Two Men Before the Storm,” his novelization of “the most consequential legal case in American history,” Scott v. Sandford.
Wallance’s imaginative contribution to the well-known case of Dred Scott, the slave who sued unsuccessfully for his freedom in a series of court cases between 1847 and 1857, is to bring lawyer Arba Crane out of the shadows of history and into the center of the story.
Wallance first encountered the “real” Arba Crane in a footnote to a book about the Scott case. The note cited a letter sent in the early 20th century to the head librarian at the Missouri Historical Society.
The letter described how Crane—then working for Roswell Field, the prominent St. Louis attorney commonly regarded as “Dred Scott’s lawyer”—met Scott, whom Field had hired as a night janitor. The men began talking, and Crane soon became convinced that Scott had sound legal grounds to seek his freedom.
“After I read that footnote I decided to write this book; indeed, I had to write it,” Wallance writes in his “Author’s Note.” Wallance, also an attorney, explains that he could understand the young lawyer’s loneliness working late at night. He could see how a friendship could develop between the young Crane and the slave Dred Scott.
From that morsel of information and personal identification, Wallance grows Crane into a strong, credible character. Crane narrates the novel in the first person, beginning with his arrival in the city in the early 1850s as a brooding man escaping a domineering father, limited future and troubling past in Newfane, New Hampshire—the “real” Roswell Field’s hometown.
Crane finds St. Louis to be a both a vibrant and violent place, full of disease, muddy streets, prostitutes and death—but most of all, it is a place where human beings were bought and sold on the steps of the city’s new courthouse, now known as the “Old Courthouse.”
After meeting Scott, he becomes immersed in the politics of the city’s pro- and anti-slavery elite, falling in love with a fictitious Southern belle, Kate Fox, along the way. Wallance uses Fox to both explore the conflicted worldview of the Old South and to add another dimension to his imagined abolitionist, Arba Crane.
Wallance’s crisply written novel moves quickly. He wisely avoids getting bogged down in legal minutiae, providing just enough detail for the reader to understand the legal issues at hand.
Historians and legal scholars will have some quibbles with the liberties Wallance takes with the facts—for example, he uses court documents to construct a dialogue between attorneys and the Supreme Court judges, something he admits did not happen, to say nothing of the diminished role he gives to Roswell Field.
My own quibble is that Wallance seems unaware, in his “Historical Notes,” that his Southern belle shares a name with one of the 19th-century sisters who started the “spiritualism” craze, Kate and Maggie Fox. Spiritualism plays a role in the novel—could he have missed, in his research, Barbara Weisberg’s 2004 book on the Fox sisters, “Talking to the Dead”? Would he have named his character “Kate Fox” had he been aware of the “real” Kate Fox?
But such nits are truly quibbles. Fans of history and fiction alike will be unable to deny the power of Wallance’s story, which calls a truce between the warring armies of fact and fiction—at least for now.