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Echo of Lions, by Barbara Chase-Riboud

Sculptor and author Barbara Chase-Riboud is the plaintiff in the latest court battle surrounding the Amistad incident. She is suing Dreamworks SKG, claiming that its new movie, Amistad, misappropriates characters, situations, and other aspects of her 1988 book, Echo of Lions

Echo of Lions centers around the story of Joseph Cinque, the African who led the revolt against the Spanish slave traders. Most of the book focuses on the year-and-a-half of trials and appeals surrounding the revolt, which culminated in the Supreme Court case United States v. Amistad.

Ms. Chase-Riboud also stresses the role of President Martin Van Buren, remembered to history as an abolitionist. Van Buren called for the return of the ships and slaves to Cuba, and made arrangements for the immediate deportation of the slaves to Cuba if the district court ruled against them. After the District Court ruled in favor of the Africans and the Circuit Court affirmed that decision, President Van Buren ordered that the case be appealed to the Supreme Court. The book attributes Van Buren's strong stance to his re-election bid, and to his need to curry the favor of the Southern states, which at that time were still economically dependent upon a slave labor force. (The Supreme Court attributed the government's position to pressures from Spain.)

Echo of Lions starkly contrasts Van Buren's position with that of former President John Quincy Adams. Adams -- not typically portrayed in history as a strong advocate of abolition or slave rights -- returned from effective retirement to argue the Africans' case before the Supreme Court.

The first portion of Echo of Lions, in which Ms. Chase-Riboud describes the slaves' terror at sea, has been widely acclaimed as moving and powerful, even terrifying. Its deep level of historical detail has also been noted, both positively and negatively: one critic lauded her as a "thorough historian," but another bemoaned the book as full of "arcane historical detail." One critic complained that, while the African slaves were compellingly portrayed as a group, their individual characters -- aside from Joseph Cinque -- "blur."

As a work of "historical fiction," Echo of Lions contains some original characters and incidents. An African interpreter, James Covey, and an African-American woman, Vivian Braithwaite, play significant roles during the Africans' tribulations before the American justice system.

Critics review Echo of Lions

"Historians have written shelves of books on the slave trade, which brought about the largest forced migration in history, but they have never adequately captured, as this skilled novelist has done, the terror and trauma of the enslavement experience." "In the novel's opening sections she partially succeeds in conveying the unrelenting horror of the Middle Passage, but as the story proceeds Ms. Chase-Riboud's attempts to give the story an epic feel too often result in overblown and awkward prose." "This is Barbara Chase-Riboud's best work, to date. A thorough historian, she has risen to the demands of her subject. She presents the issue of slavery not as a black and white issue, but as one of an ennobling right striving against a corrupting wrong." "Apparently unable to decide what actions are important, Chase-Riboud seems similarly unable to make the decision with regard to characters. She offers painstaking introductions to many who mean little. Some we never again hear of. Historical figures pass untouched and untouching. "