HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself
Author: Harriet Ann Jacobs
Publisher: Dover Publications, reprinted in 2001
Related websites: http://www.harrietjacobs.org/ (dedicated to author), http://www.doverpublications.com (publisher)
Language level: 3
(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)
Reading level: Teens and adults
Rating: ***** 5 stars (EXCELLENT)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Jacobs, Harriet Ann. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself (originally published in 1861 at Boston, MA; republished in 2001 by Dover Publications, 31 E. 2nd St., Mineola, NY 11501). This autobiographical account by a former slave is one of the first personal narratives by a slave and one of the few extant narratives written by a woman. Written and published in 1861, it delivers a powerful portrayal of the brutality of slave life. Harriet Jacobs (1813-97), who was a slave in North Carolina and suffered terribly, along with her family, at the hands of a ruthless owner, speaks frankly of her master’s abuse and her eventual escape, in a tale of dauntless spirit and faith. She made several failed attempts to escape before successfully making her way North, although it took years of hiding and slow progress. Eventually, she was reunited with her children.
Without telling the whole story here, Harriet Jacobs was born a slave in Edenton, NC, in 1813 In 1825, Margaret Horniblow died and willed the twelve-year-old Harriet to Horniblow’s five-year-old niece. The girl’s father, Dr. James Norcom, called “Dr. Flint” in the book, became Harriet’s de facto master. Norcom sexually harassed Harriet. Hoping to escape his attentions, Jacobs took Samuel Sawyer, a free single white lawyer, as a consensual lover, with whom she had two children, Joseph and Louisa. By 1835 her domestic situation had become unbearable, and Harriet deftly managed to escape, hiding in the home of a sympathetic slaveowner in Edenton to keep an eye on her children. After a short stay, she took refuge in a swamp called Cabarrus Pocosin. She then hid in a crawl space above a shack in her grandmother Molly’s home for seven years before escaping by boat to Philadelphia, PA, in 1842. From there she went to New York in September 1845, and then to Boston to visit with her daughter, son and brother for ten months. In 1861, under the penname Linda Brent, she penned this book to encourage Northern women to speak out against the evils of slavery and support the war effort to end it.
The book was published in 1861 through the efforts of Maria Child, an abolitionist who edited the manuscript and wrote an introduction to it. It had its origin in a series of letters that Jacobs wrote between 1853 and 1861 to her friends in the abolitionist movement, notably a woman named Amy Post. Historically, there was some doubt about the authorship of the book and about the authenticity of the incidents it records, but these doubts have largely been put to rest by the discovery of the letters. The story has been “romanticized” by the use of pseudonyms to protect the privacy of individuals, but those involved claim that the incidents recounted in the narrative are “no fiction.” It is not for small children. The “d” word is used several times in quotations, along with a few instances of taking the Lord’s name in vain. Jacobs does not shy away from exposing the brutality of slavery and the immorality of many slave holders, though the material is presented delicately. She also reveals her own culpability in the affair with Sawyer but express great sorrow and shame for her wrong. However, it is a great source of firsthand historical material for teens and adults regarding the effects of slavery.