Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero
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A doctoral dissertation recycled as a literary biography of the legendary abolitionist and feminist.

Sixty years have elapsed since the last full-length portrait of Harriet Tubman (1822–1913), and first-time author Larson must be commended for uncovering many new facts about the astonishing life of a woman once called “the Black Joan of Arc” and “the Black Moses,” a woman who knew John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott, and countless others involved in the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the women’s suffrage movement. Larson’s handling of these remarkable materials, however, is unrelievedly conventional and often dull; she even fails to animate Tubman’s remarkable single encounter with fellow activist Sojourner Truth. After an introductory sketch of her subject’s life, the author returns us to antebellum Maryland, where young Harriet grew up as the property of Edward Brodess, a stereotypical white slave owner. Although an 1852 fire in the Dorchester County Courthouse destroyed key documents, Larson was nonetheless able to trace the history of Tubman and her family. Harriet fled slavery in 1849, but risked her life to return numerous times (sometimes disguised as an old man) to rescue relatives and others, some 70 people in all. She became well known on the abolitionist circuit and returned to the South when the Civil War broke out to nurse the wounded, recruit freed blacks for the Union Army, and spy for the North. Amazing success greeted all her efforts, and after the war, Tubman spent years trying to coax a pension from the government. She devoted her final years to family, public speaking, and assorted social causes; slender proceeds from early biographies helped her stay alive until she finally got her pension. Unfortunately, Larson’s artless prose never equals Tubman’s achievements, and the text often resembles what it once was—an academic assignment.

Well-researched, but the plodding treatment keeps this powerful, important story from soaring. (4 maps, not seen)

Pub Date: Jan. 6th, 2004
ISBN: 0-345-45627-0
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Ballantine
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2003