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Harriet Tubman's life: Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps

The Baltimore Sun

Harriet Tubman

By Beverly Lowry

Random House / 432 pages / $32

In 1822, Harriet Tubman, nee Araminta Ross, was born into slavery on a Maryland plantation. She came into the world not simply as her parents' issue but as someone else's property. Along with her siblings, she and her parents were chattel, nothing more.

Regularly, the Ross family was splintered by the harsh commerce of slavery. The child known as Minty was routinely beaten by despotic owners - punishment for transgressions that were often minor and more often imaginary. Compassionate masters and mistresses may have existed somewhere, she said in later years, but "I didn't happen to come across them."

At age 13, Minty's world changed when her skull was split open in a freak incident. A 2-pound weight, probably intended for someone else, hit her dead between the eyes. The hideous wound, and the triangular crease that would remain on her forehead for life, made her unsalable. "They said they wouldn't give sixpence for me," she recalled. The injury changed her in other ways: Minty began having visions, private insights that turned an always independent child into a rebel.

In Harriet Tubman, Beverly Lowry, author of two other works of nonfiction as well as six novels, has taken on a remarkable subject. Tiny, powerful and illiterate, Tubman (who kept the surname of her first husband and took her mother's given name) escaped from slavery at age 27 and soon set about guiding scores of slaves to freedom, some of them clear to Canada. She became known as "Moses," often fording deep waters as she steered frightened men and women to new lives free of white ownership. Some called her the black Joan of Arc, others General Tubman. At her funeral in Auburn, N.Y., in 1913, she wore a medal from Queen Victoria. In recognition of her service to the United States during the Civil War, ministering to wounded soldiers and aiding the government as a scout, spy and de facto nurse, an American flag was draped across her casket. In 1978, Tubman became the first African-American woman to be featured on a U.S. postage stamp.

Given such dramatic-accomplishments, Tubman would seem to be a biographer's dream. But Lowry, although her newest book is listed as a biography, tips her hand with the subtitle: "Imagining a Life." In an author's note, she gives her readers fair warning. "This book does not pretend to be a work of intense scholarship," she writes; rather, Tubman's life has been "reimagined ... based on documentation and previous publications."

Her book tells Tubman's story through the lens of "perhaps." Page after page, paragraph after paragraph, Lowry repeats that word. Perhaps Harriet walked barefoot on wet, cold ground, and perhaps this gave her a recurring lung condition that perhaps rendered her bedridden. Perhaps her head injury made it impossible for her to learn to read. Perhaps she disguised herself as a male. Perhaps, in her nonstop flurry of travel, she raced from Virginia to New York and up to Ontario. Perhaps Tubman returned in secret to her native state. Perhaps she did not. The verbal variations of this speculative approach include "probably," "presumably," "maybe" and many, many examples of what Tubman "might have" said or done. With deft confidence, Lowry takes up residence inside Tubman's head, relating her thoughts along with her prophetic visions.

As a reader, journalist and dilettante historian, I cringed each time I encountered this slipperiness. Despite Lowry's careful caveat at the book's outset, I felt a little hoodwinked. Where there is so much conjecture, how can one know what to trust?

Lowry has here ventured into what might be called hypothetical history. The genre may sit well with those who seek to bridge actual historical events and some kind of psychosocial interpretation; usually, however, this approach is known as historical fiction (or that dreadful contemporary hybrid, "faction") and thus does not impinge on the more stringent category of biography, where the author's imagination hardly comes into play.

Tubman deserves better. Why bend to invention? Lowry's is not the first Tubman biography, but why should that be a problem? Major figures (John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson) invite regular re-examination. Instead of imagined thoughts and motivations (such as the suggestion that Tubman was "haunted" by visions of her aged parents), I wanted to know how Tubman did all that she did. How did she move from place to place? What was it like when this fiery figure arrived in staid Boston? Who greeted her? Where did she sleep?

Not to carp (oh, well, why not carp?), but I also had trouble with the writing. In some sections, the pace moves quickly - as Tubman must have when she was on the run, alone or with frantic fugitive slaves in tow. And passages based on historical documentation, such as the massacre of Col. Robert Gould Shaw and much of his 54th Massachusetts regiment, also work well. But Lowry's prose can get lumpy, as when she writes about "the wooded marshlands that hog the southern half of Dorchester," where "autumn nights settle in early, beginning at an hour when, only weeks before, daylight yet held out against the opening-act fandango of sunset." Similarly, in an episode "most likely" set in 1835, Lowry muses on flax with unnecessary intensity, not to mention adjectives. Such florid excess feels like cake frosting - as if, absent facts, Lowry had decided to substitute decor.

Elizabeth Mehren is a professor of journalism at Boston University. She wrote a longer version of this review for the Los Angeles Times.

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