A speculative biography, told mostly through imagined scenes, of the Underground Railroad’s most famous conductor.
Tubman (c. 1819–1913) never learned to read or write; her memories have all been recorded and interpreted by others. Lowry (Creative Nonfiction/George Mason Univ.; Her Dream of Dreams, 2003, etc.) deals with the documentation problems this creates by acknowledging inconsistencies in the records, considering their sources and then choosing what seems most probable to her. Words like “presumably,” “may have,” “might” and “probably” appear frequently. Throughout, the reader learns as much about slavery, the Underground Railroad, abolitionists, the Civil War in the Carolinas and emancipation as about Tubman. We do learn that she was struck in the head as a child on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and thereafter experienced narcolepsy, had visions and heard voices. We see her as an overworked child, as an enterprising young woman and as a determined runaway who escaped to the North in 1849. Once there, she saw it as her responsibility to help others. Confident that God was directing her work, she made numerous trips back, acting as guide and commander to hundreds of slaves. How she accomplished this without being captured remains unclear, although she seems to have established a large network through which she could send messages and raise funds. During the Civil War, Tubman put her organizational, navigational and intelligence skills to use as a nurse, spy and scout for the Union in the Carolinas. After the war, she spent 30 years trying to obtain retroactive pay and a pension, finally succeeding when she was 77. Lowry swiftly moves through Tubman’s later years. It is for her midlife feats that she is remembered, and those accomplishments and the circumstances surrounding them are well depicted here.
Creative nonfiction from a writer well-versed in the genre.