A July Staff Pick

When I was introduced to Harriet Tubman in grade school the Underground Railroad almost sounded like a good time. All that sneaking around and hush-hush meetings with “friends” in the middle of night seemed akin to an adult version of kick-the-can — at least to my woefully insensitive ears. That reference point stuck in part because nothing ever replaced it. Tubman’s life is underwritten; she plays a prominent role in dozens of children’s books but only a bit part in those without drawings.

It’s hard to believe it took until 2004 for a serious biographer to tackle Tubman’s story. But, after I recently read Catherine Clinton’s fine biography — this book, like several other bookseller picks, is on sale at River City Books for 25 percent off until the end of July — I have an inkling why: there just isn’t a lot of material to work with. The lives of African-American women were not well documented in the nineteenth century. This reality presented Clinton, who has multiple Ivy League degrees, with an unenviable task — and left gaps this reader wanted filled in. I got the sense the author shared this frustration, too, as at times Clinton reaches for something that isn’t there.

But, given the handicaps, I forgive the instances when the writing didn’t blow me away. More important is what someone with Clinton’s research chops did provide: a substantive portrait of Harriet Tubman’s fearless, important and brave life — and a much-needed revised reference point for my now slightly more educated mind.

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