As the author writes in an afterword, this fictional story, illustrated by the inimitable Kadir Nelson, is based on the spiritual journey of Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who went on to lead many more to freedom.
Harriet was born into slavery around 1820 on a plantation in Maryland. She decided to escape in 1849 when she was in her late twenties. Her master had died and she feared being sold farther south where she heard it was even worse. Harriet had been beaten often. In addition, she was once hit in the head with a two-pound weight by an overseer (who was aiming for a different slave but hit her instead). For the rest of her life, Harriet suffered disabling seizures, headaches, and powerful visionary and dream experiences. She believed these visions to be revelations from God. (The author incorporates into her lyrical text Harriet’s messages and signs she attributed to God, without mentioning Harriet’s head injury.)
Harriet’s escape was aided by the network of sympathizers known as the Underground Railroad. She journeyed ninety miles to Philadelphia, but soon after returned to Maryland to bring back her family members. And she kept going back to rescue others, in spite of the dangers. The famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison began to call her Moses, after the Biblical prophet who led the slaves out of Egypt. She claimed it wasn’t her; it was the Lord, guiding her through her visions.
But Frederick Douglass insisted on her own role when he wrote to her in a letter in 1868:
“The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown—of sacred memory—I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have.”
Harriet was never captured. When the Civil War erupted, she became a common fixture in Union camps, assisting fugitive slaves seeking refuge with the northern army. She also provided intelligence to the military based on her knowledge of the terrain of the Underground Railroad.
In her later years, she was frequently ill and penniless, but still worked for black rights and women’s suffrage. She died of pneumonia in 1913 at age 93.
Moses is a lovely book, even if it only deals with a narrow slice of Harriet’s life. It puts events into a very positive light, focusing on Harriet’s bravery, compassion, and deep religious beliefs.
What really makes this book exceptional however are the amazing paintings by Kadir Nelson. He portrays such a wide range of emotion in the faces he depicts, and there is so much power in his work. I can’t rave enough about his illustrations!
Evaluation: This take on the story of Harriet Tubman will appeal to those who would like the emphasis on faith. If that is not your thing, however, the prose is still quite lovely, and the illustrations are spectacular.
Published by Jump at the Sun/Hyperion Books for Children, an imprint of the Disney Book Group, 2006
Note: Awards for this book include the 2007 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Children, Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award (2007), and Caldecott Honor (2007)
Reading level: Ages 5 and up
Hardcover: 48 pages