By Kem Knapp Sawyer
(DK Publishing, 2010, $14.99)
Most American students cover Harriet Tubman in elementary school. That is, they learn that she, a former slave herself, guided African-Americans to freedom via the Underground Railroad. In Harriet Tubman, Kem Knapp Sawyer creates a vivid portrait of the antislavery activist and her time.
A larger-than-life Harriet Tubman leaps from Sawyer’s pages. A plucky, inventive heroine, she outwitted slave catchers with costumes and secret codes to bring as many as eighty people to freedom in Canada. But Sawyer also highlights Tubman’s humanity. Harriet daydreams as a teenager, grieves when her first marriage dissolves, and misses her family when she heads north. Sawyer also discusses Tubman’s less well-known, but equally remarkable accomplishments: her work as a nurse and spy during the Civil War and her care home for African American elders in Auburn, New York. A gifted public speaker, she won support for the abolitionist cause, charming audiences with her warm, humorous manner.
Occasionally, adding drama to an already exciting life, Sawyer embellishes Tubman’s biography with hearsay. According to some sources, Tubman threatened panicky protégés with a gun. “A live runaway could do great harm by going back, but a dead one could tell no secrets,” she said. Or so the legend goes. Such anecdotes may enliven Tubman’s story, but can middle-grade readers comprehend conjecture? Or moral ambiguity? Some kids may not be able to differentiate between facts and possible fictions, especially when they encounter both in a nonfiction book.
Harriet Tubman is also an unflinching look at the slavery in America. Sawyer discusses the history of the American slave trade and the horrors enslaved people experienced – drudgery, brutal beating, and the lurking possibility that one’s owner might sell off a family member. She also explores the abolitionist movement, and the courageous people, both black and white, who fought slavery and helped people on the road to freedom. Side bars, period drawing, and photos illustrate the struggle for freedom and make the biography visually appealing.
“I was a stranger in a strange land,” said Harriet Tubman of her first exhilarating, frightening arrival in the North. In Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad conductor is no longer the remote stranger of the textbook, but a lively, courageous human being.
© Dorothy A. Dahm