Getting to the Heart of Harriet Tubman: The Tubman Command by Elizabeth Cobbs
She may have to wait a few more years to make her appearance on the US twenty-dollar bill, but Harriet Tubman has been brought vividly to life in a new novel, The Tubman Command (Simon & Schuster, 2019).
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland in the 1820s. She grew up on the Brodass family plantation in Madison but was regularly hired out to other families, working as a nursemaid to other children at the age of six. As a teenager, she was hit on the head during a confrontation between an owner and another slave. Tubman suffered from severe headaches and epilepsy for the rest of her life as a result. In 1849, Harriet Tubman escaped slavery, crossing into Pennsylvania and finding safety in Philadelphia, but almost immediately she began working to help others find freedom, leading groups of slaves toward safety via the Underground Railroad.
Yet that’s not the part of Tubman’s life that is the focus of The Tubman Command. As author Elizabeth Cobbs explains: “Most people know her from the Underground Railroad, but she was also a Union spy who received a military pension after the Civil War. This is a part of her career that’s typically brushed over—perhaps because it’s so hard to believe that a such a tiny woman could pull off what she did, at a time when the Union seemed on the verge of defeat. Honestly, I just wanted to figure out how she did it.”
The episode Cobbs refers to is the Combahee River Raid of June 1863. Through the dramatic events leading up to and during this raid, Cobbs brings Harriet Tubman to life as a leader and a lover. “I hope people will take away that she was a real person, with hopes, fears, loves, and regrets—just like us,” Cobbs explains. “She was our nation’s greatest female patriot, yet she also struggled and made mistakes. Realizing that, feeling that, will make readers love her more, I hope. Tubman challenges all of us to be better people. When we put her on a pedestal, we let ourselves off the hook for not being courageous about the challenges of our own time. We all want love. Harriet did, too. Most people don’t know she was married twice: once before the Civil War to a man who broke her heart, and afterwards to a man who shared her thirst for freedom and justice. (He, too, served with the U.S. Colored Troops, as they were then called.) If we want to know Harriet Tubman’s heart, we need all of it. The backstory helps readers visualize her as a full person. Plus, what’s a good novel without a love affair?”
The Tubman Command is a tightly written novel that deals unflinchingly with the harshness of life during this period of American history. Being true to the time can be a challenge. “If we want to understand what it was like to be enslaved,” says Cobbs, “we have to imagine all the ways, small and big, that being “property” unexpectedly twisted people’s lives. One of the most chilling realizations with which I came away was that all of Harriet’s four brothers escaped to freedom, yet none of her four sisters did. Slavery trapped men and women differently. I hope readers will feel Harriet’s sorrow at this incomprehensible loss. Like her, I myself am a middle child in a large family. It’s hard to fathom what it would mean if my three sisters simply disappeared—because they were “breeders”—and my three brothers survived.”
As well as investing emotionally in her story, Cobbs was careful to use language to give her characters realistic voices in their speech. “The thoughts in our heads are without accent, but speech is flavored by where and when we grew up. In my first draft of the book, everyone spoke as if delivering the weather report in Kansas City. But then I realized that to respect my characters’ time and place, I needed to let more of the flavor through. So I tried to distinguish between voices of the Lower and Middle South, and New England and upstate New York. I even let a bit ‘o Scottish immigrant dialect into the mix! America was as diverse then as it is now, so it seemed important to reveal that diversity, without overdoing it.”
The Tubman Command gives an engrossing picture of the sheer strength and bravery of Harriet Tubman, as much through the small details, as the larger action the novel describes. A prime example is the detail that Tubman knocked her own tooth out with her pistol. Was that really true? Here’s Elizabeth Cobbs’s answer: “That’s what people who knew her said! In the 19th century, people didn’t grin at the camera as we do now, so in the few photographs we have, Tubman’s mouth is closed. Because she was illiterate, historians must rely on the testimony of acquaintances for depictions of her personality, appearance, and actions. Described as “fine looking” when young, she was also described as missing a tooth. The story was told that she knocked it out herself when it became so painful during an escape that she feared she couldn’t otherwise lead.”
About the contributor: Kate Braithwaite is the author of three historical novels, most recently The Girl Puzzle – a story of Nellie Bly (Crooked Cat Books, 2019).