Harriet Tubman (Review)

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Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom
Catherine Clinton, 2004
304 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
February 2010

Harriet Tubman is a real-life action hero: if James Cameron were to make a film of her life, nothing—nothing!—would have to be invented to juice up the screenplay.

Most of us know of Tubman's exploits to free slaves. But the number she rescued, the hardships endured, the risks to her life, the fame she attained...and so, so much more make this biography an especially stunning read.

You'll read this book with bitter gall, given the horrific treatment of African-Americans before, during and after the Civil War. Add to that the treatment of Tubman herself. Despite her nationwide fame and her military service during the war—she headed up a spy ring and led a union raid, rescuing 750 slaves at one time!—it took her 30 years to receive the military pension due her.

Clinton's book is an objective, footnoted study—one woefully needed. No serious adult biography of Tubman has been written for over 100 years, a sad neglect of an American hero. But perhaps it's understandable given the fact that so much was undocumented due to the secrecy of her work and Tubman's life-time illiteracy—as well as her genuine humility.

Yet author Clinton makes the best of this paucity by plumbing her many sources. She also situates Tubman's story in a larger historical context—including detailed discussions of slavery, national politics, and the underground railroad. It's a fascinating story.

For history buffs, biography lovers, and women's/civil rights advocates...this is a rich, significant work. I loved it.

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