When they think of Harriet Tubman, most adults probably imagine a woman holding a rifle and leading slaves to freedom by following the North Star. Tubman's heroics, summarized and simplified for children's books and young adult texts, have long been a staple of book reports and Black History Month observances in schools. While those stories convey the courageousness of her life as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Catherine Clinton's new biography, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, reveals they have only scratched the surface of the fugitive slave's remarkable courage and mystique.
Touted as the first serious biography of Tubman, Clinton's book reads more like an adventure tale than a history lesson. The author depicts Tubman's extraordinary role with the Underground Railroad, where she was the only fugitive slave and the only woman who dared attempt "abductions," the term for entering the South to lead slaves North. Tubman's faith, planning and intuition yielded a perfect record of successful liberations. Some attributed her success to divine intervention, further contributing to the Tubman mystique.
Though many readers know Tubman conducted fugitives to freedom, few know about her largest liberation effort, in which she freed hundreds of slaves while assisting the Union army during the Civil War. Harriet Tubman details Tubman's Civil War service as well as more personal aspects of her life, including the heartbreak of her first marriage and the mystery surrounding Tubman's "kidnapping" of an eight-year-old girl. Clinton also offers overviews of slavery, the abolition movement and the Civil War to help readers put Tubman's experience in context.
Throughout her life, Tubman worked to help others, through dangerous missions as well as by working for the comfort of ex-slaves in a society that still locked them out of most services and opportunities. Clinton's biography provides an in-depth look at Tubman and holds moments of wonder for readers. Bernadette Adams Davis is a playwright and reviewer in Florida.