Speak Right On

Historical Fiction Based on the Life of Dred Scott

A Novel by Mary E. Neighbour


Who was Dred Scott, other than one of America's most famous slaves? History cannot answer that question because no one bothered to record even the most basic details about the man at the center of one of the country's most pivotal Supreme Court rulings—one that pitched the United States into civil war.

Speak Right On, a work of historical fiction, depicts Dred Scott as an orphaned, destitute, illiterate slave whose strength of character, artful storytelling, and keen insights protect his family and result in ultimate victory. He is man who journeys to define his own truth, who cries out to share his story with all who will listen. That is his freedom, and he requires no court to help him find it.


ABA Booklist says:

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. Alternating between a third-person account that includes Scott’s grandmother’s memories and Scott’s own first-person perspective, Neighbour deftly draws a life leading to the legal challenge. With the aid of two young white men who were virtually raised by Scott, he argues that when his recently deceased owner, an army doctor, moved the slave and his family from slave state to free state, he changed their status. 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

Julie Failla Earhart of Armchair Interviews writes:

In this historical ficton, 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.

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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, onto 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 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 this a "you gotta read this" nod. It's a fine piece of fiction from well-cared-for slaves point of view that is reminiscent of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.

Armchair Interviews says: In Gran's words, "A story! A story! Let it go, let it come."

2006 Mary E. Neighbour
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