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Reviewed by:
  • Mrs. Dread Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier
  • Lolita Buckner-Inniss (bio), Sonia Lawrence (bio), Emily Grabham (bio), Maneesha Deckha (bio), and Kim Brooks (bio)
Mrs. Dread Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier By Lea VanderVelde (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier is a biography of Harriet Robinson Scott, the wife of Dred Scott, written by Lea VanderVelde, the Josephine R. Witte Professor of Law at the University of Iowa College of Law. VanderVelde's writing covers a wide range of topics, from labour law, to equality, to the laws of slavery. Her curriculum vitae shows her commitment to gendered analysis across these areas of inquiry.1 Feminist method generally involves looking into the circumstances of women's lives, and Mrs. Dred Scott is in this vein. "Women's history is often necessary to complement the many histories that have been written about men," writes VanderVelde.2 However, VanderVelde's task was monumental, at least in part because Harriet was not literate and left no records of her own. Her life has to be pieced together from archival materials such as letters, accounts, legal documents, the memoirs of others, and contemporary reports. "Writing the life of an illiterate servant also requires a careful reconstruction of the material culture. Performing household tasks . . . dictated most of Harriet's daily efforts."3 Since Harriet was largely invisible to those who were literate and whose writings did survive to this day, there is an extent to which the outcome of all of VanderVelde's considerable work is still deeply frustrating. She replies to these critiques: "We have no alternative but to speculate on these lives using the best means possible. Otherwise, we leave them unimagined and thereby risk, as a result of the silence inflicted upon them, creating the false impression that only the lettered contributed to history."4 [End Page 458]

Following VanderVelde's introduction, which speaks to her methods and aims, Chapter 1 offers a vignette from Harriet's later life as a washerwoman in St. Louis. It is 1857. The Dred Scott case is over. Two newspapermen come looking for Dred Scott, now a "celebrity," and they find Harriet at her ironing. The following chapters are about Harriet's life on the frontier, St. Peter's Indian Agency in Indian Territory, where she arrived in 1835 as a fourteen-year-old slave owned by Lawrence Taliaferro (pronounced "Tolliver"), US Indian agent to the Sioux. These chapters detail her daily chores and the major events at St. Peters, including a treaty signing in 1837, and, in the same year, Harriet's marriage to Dred Scott. Her first child was born in 1838. Passed between a number of "masters," the family moves to St. Louis, then to Jefferson Barracks just south of the city, and, finally, in 1846, they file suit in the St. Louis courthouse. Chapters 25-31 cover the filing of the lawsuit to the release of the Supreme Court of the United States decision in 1857. Chapter 32 is a brief "Aftermath and Epilogue." More than 100 pages of footnotes and source lists follow.

What follows are five reflections on VanderVelde's tour de force. Lolita Buckner-Inniss troubles the genre of VanderVelde's contribution. Sonia Lawrence teases out and reflects upon five themes of the book: justice, oppression, racialization, the relationship between lawyer and client, and courage. Emily Grabham presses at some of the limits of writing—otherwise identifying ways in which this book falls short, perhaps necessarily so, of our expectations. Maneesha Deckha explores the corners of the book, identifying places where the text is rich with detail and marking places where an absence of narrative left her uneasy. Kim Brooks highlights a few additional contributions of the work. These pieces were originally written for a blog. They have been edited lightly for inclusion in the Canadian Journal of Women and the Law. We have, however, preserved their informal feel.

Mrs Dred Scott: A Genre Bender?

Lolita Buckner-Inniss

"History is twofold. There is the history of things and the history of words."5 So wrote Giamabattista Vico in describing how history is both an...


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