Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Harriet Tubman

I read this book because I followed the trail from Robert Egger's book Begging for Change. He said that Harriet Tubman had done groundbreaking work in the field of nonprofit administration. How interesting, I thought. Since I love biographies anyway, it wasn't too difficult for me to get into this book. The book is by Catherine Clinton.

Seriously, I think "inspiring" is the best word to describe her life. I felt impassioned as I read this book, and empowered to think what you can accomplish even when an entire culture is set against you in a formal, articulated way.

I learned a lot of things that I hadn't known before. For example, that Harriet Tubman was born on Maryland's Eastern Shore and that my adopted home state is the place where she came and did a lot of her rescues.

I learned a lot about the culture of the freemen and the slaves and the political environment in which they found themselves. Obviously, there is great discussion of the abolitionist movement in general. The authentic descriptions of slave/colored status are heartbreaking, but not sentimental, which I think is quite a feat. It is fine writing.

I hadn't known that Harriet Tubman was a war hero in her own right and that she spent years "volunteering" in South Carolina and Virginia in order to further the Union cause. I also hadn't known about the Canadian history of the Underground Railroad. I had known that there must have been some because when I lived in Quebec I met black people who had called Canada home for generations.

The end of her life, which I assume is the part that Egger's book is referring to, recounts all the effort that Harriet expended in founding a charity to take care of "those of her race." I think the most impressive part was that she didn't appear to have any trouble at all making the case for funding, apparently she was always taking up a basket and collecting funds for needy cases, when in fact, she was quite hard-pressed for funds more often than not. I think this must be what Egger refers to when he quite urgently tells of the need to cut the fat out of nonprofit executives' salaries: Tubman was authentic because, in her hour of need, she thought of others first.

A good book, I highly recommend this read if you have any biographical leanings at all.

UPDATE: I sent an email to the author and got a response! Here is my email:
I read your book this weekend and it was a real page-turner, couldn't put it down. I was glad to learn more about Harriet Tubman, who I didn't even realize was from my adopted home state. She was an inspiring woman and you bring her to live amazingly.

I love biography and am wondering how you get started doing that. Obviously, you have an academic background. Is it possible in practice for someone w/o formal historian background to write biographies? I have one in mind that I keep thinking would be interesting.
Here is her response:
Dear Nick,

Thanks for your kind words.

Please know that I so very much appreciate messages from readers. Yours is especially pleasing because it show that the book touched you. Please know that Harriet Tubman is an inspiration. She would tell you and anyone who has a dream to "Keep Going."

I did have an academic background, but its not required. Many biographers are writers who have a gift for their subjects and pursue their topic with zeal--

I do think that taking some writing courses or doing writing workshops, perhaps at a local university or community college can help you to focus your energies.

Thanks again for your letter,
By Catherine Clinton
ISBN # 0316144924