Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Posts tagged ‘Harriet Tubman’

Harriet Tubman: Finding the True Story

I’ve found that each book brings its own challenges with the research. Harriet Tubman, my new book for National Geographic’s readers series, was no different.

I quickly discovered that writing about someone who had not learned to read or write was hard. I hadn’t realized how much I depended on letters, journals, and books and articles written by the subjects of my biographies. Without those materials, I felt slightly lost as I began the research on Tubman.

It didn’t help that Tubman’s work in rescuing slaves through the Underground Railroad needed to be so secretive. Later, she was a spy for the Union army during the Civil War, again all necessarily done in secret. Fortunately for me, Tubman lived a more public life after the slaves were freed. At that time, she had a new mission in helping freed slaves and working for women’s rights. She traveled giving speeches that included talking about her early life. I was happy to find a couple of interviews she did with reporters at that time. They provided some details about her life and a couple of great quotes.

Tubman also had a biographer. Sarah H. Bradford wrote two biographies about Tubman, Harriet: The Moses of Her People (1886) and Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869). Bradford was an excellent storyteller and had Tubman’s cooperation in writing the biographies. So, her books contain many interesting events from Tubman’s life including her thoughts and feelings about her childhood as a slave and her experiences with the Underground Railroad.

On the other hand, Bradford was a practical businesswoman and she wrote the books partly to help raise money for Tubman’s living expenses. So, Bradford wanted the books to sell well. To increase sales, she embellished Tubman’s story turning her into a kind of folk hero.

Misleading information is always a problem, and Bradford’s biographies didn’t make my job any easier. I was discouraged to find that sources I would normally consider trustworthy still go by information based on Bradford’s version of Tubman’s story. For example, according to Bradford, Tubman made 19 trips as a conductor on the Underground Railroad rescuing 300 slaves. As I got further into the research, I learned that Tubman actually made 13 trips rescuing 70 slaves including many family members. That was an amazing feat considering the danger. No embellishment is necessary.

Those 13 trips have been carefully documented by historians such as Kate Clifford Larson. Her book Bound for the Promised Land was a valuable resource for me, and I was doubly blessed when Larson agreed to serve as the expert reader for my book. The expert reader is exactly as the title says. It’s someone considered to be an expert on the person I’m writing about who checks the book to make sure the facts are accurate. Larson was asked to go through my book at a couple of different stages in production. Each time, she was helpful and encouraging.

She was also able to clear up a problem I was having with a photo said to be of Harriet and her first husband John Tubman. That photo has been widely circulated on the Internet, and to be honest, I wanted it to be a photo of the couple because it was perfect for my book. I don’t know what John Tubman looks like, but the woman in the photo certainly looks like she could be Harriet. Yet from what I had learned in my research my gut told me it was very unlikely that there was a photo of the couple in existence. Larson confirmed that my gut was right, and we did not use the photo.

Getting the facts right is hard and with each book I am reminded that I don’t do it alone. Like raising a child, “it takes a village” and I’m grateful for the team I work with at National Geographic and for expert readers like Kate Larson.

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