Letters from a Slave Girl, The Story of Harriet Jacobs by Mary E. Lyons is based upon Harriet Jacob’s own 1861 autobiography entitled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery, it was the only life that she knew. When her mistress, Margaret Horniblow, who taught Harriet to read and write (very unusual practice), becomes ill on her deathbed, Harriet has hopes that she will be set free. But when it comes time to read the will, she’s devastated that she’s instead being gifted to Miss Horniblow’s three-year-old niece. With her new mistress being so young, she falls under the control of Dr. Norcom and his wife Maria.
It isn’t long before Dr. Norcom begins making sexual advances on Harriet, even to the point of building Harriet her own cottage to be out of the house from his wife. Harriet begs to be married to a free black man, but Dr. Norcom becomes enraged. Thinking that if she becomes pregnant with a white man’s baby, Dr. Norcom will sell her, she does just that not once but twice. But to no avail. When she realizes that he plans to sell her two children to a plantation owner, she knows that she must take matters into her own hands.
She does manage to trick Dr. Norcom to selling the children who are then purchased by their white father, who athough is a kind man, doesn’t set them free. Harriet then sets her eyes on her own escape to freedom. Harriet runs away and leads Dr. Norcom to believe that she has fled North, but in all actuality she is hiding in a crawlspace at her grandmothers house. She lives in this tiny crawlspace for SEVEN years watching her children, unbeknown to them, through a peep hole in the wood. She eventually does escape to the north and is able to be reunited with her children and become a force in the abolition movement and writing her autobiography.
The notice put out by her master, when she escaped:
Letters from a Slave Girl is written in a journal format, as letters that Harriet writes knowing full well that they’ll never be sent (she writes to some who have already passed on). I particularly enjoyed this format of storytelling.
Mary E. Lyons, the author, states in the author’s note:
Harriet Ann Jacobs did not actually write Letters from a Slave Girl. But a biographer is also a storyteller, and after reading Harriet’s correspondence, a letter format seemed the natural way to tell her story.
Letters also suit Harriet’s biography because learning to read and write was a rare accomplishment for an enslaved child. Many slaveholders were fearful that literate slaves would be more difficult to control.
. . . To retell portions of Harriet’s story, particularly her childhood years, I reconstructed details thout would bring her to life: social occasions, meals eaten, words spoken. (Even Harriet, when recalling events from years long past, had to make up dialogue for her autobiography.) But the major events in Letters from a Slave Girl are true. Every person and place mentioned in the letters really existed. Even the weather conditions are accurate.
Letters from a Slave Girl is a great book to introduce younger readers to Harriet Jacobs and her amazing story. You can learn more about Harriet Jacobs at PBS, or of course, read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. I think Mary E. Lyons did an excellent job conveying Harriet’s voice and story.
Letters from a Slave Girl is part of my themed reading for the month of February which celebrates Black History Month. Join me this month as I explore books that celebrate the history of African-Americans. Also reviewed this month: The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles, The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox, Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope by Nikki Grime, The Well by Mildred D. Taylor, Freedom Walkers, The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Russell Freedman, Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges and Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson. Other reviews of interest: A Thousand Never Evers by Shana Burg, Yankee Girl by Mary Ann Rodman, Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, and Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis.