Review: She Came to Slay

“With no promise of a pension, Harriet and her friends began the planning of her memoir, a narrative that would be printed and sold with the hopes of finding a large readership that could generate significant income.” p. 116

She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman by Erica Armstrong Dunbar, illustrated by Monica Ahanonu.
37Ink, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2019.
Nonfiction, 162 pages.
Not yet leveled.

A unique biography of the FULL life of Harriet Tubman.

She Came to Slay resized
She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman by Erica Armstrong Dunbar.

I ordered this sight unseen because we had the ability to buy a certain amount of books and there wasn’t time to do a deep dive into each one before the gift card and sale expired.  So literally my only knowledge about this was 1) the cover and blurb, and 2) that Dunbar had written Never Caught, which I’d heard good things about but had yet to read.

Honestly I didn’t even know what age level it was for.  Never Caught is available in both adult and YRE versions.  I’m still not sure what age this was intended for, but it could work from middle school all the way up to adult readers.  Dunbar doesn’t avoid the difficult parts of Harriet Tubman’s life, but she doesn’t dwell on them either.  Remember that Minty was beaten, permanently injured, cheated on, and witnessed extreme systemic racism from Northern “allies”, among other things.  For younger or family use, I’d suggest pre-reading it first to see if it would fit your particular classroom or personal situation.

One thing I loved was the smooth integration of all the photographs.  Longtime readers might recall that I’ve complained before about when illustrations and photographs don’t match, and how it can distract from good text.  The cover illustration is an example of the interior art, but this book also incorporates all the extant photographs of her family and some other related images as well.

She Came to Slay Harriet Tubman p48-49 resized
Pages 48 and 49 of She Came to Slay show a photograph of a place Harriet Tubman would have gone, rather than a portrait of her enslavers.

I’d also like to point out exactly what is NOT shown in this book.  Books about Black Americans from this time period frequently show portraits of the slave owner or the plantation where they were enslaved, because paintings of slaves were not common, and when they did exist were rarely connected with the human life of a particular enslaved person.  However, this can have a side effect of subtly reinforcing that the white narrative or experience takes precedence.

The absence of misleading photographs does mean the first chapter is a bit denser and more text-heavy than the end of the book.  The solution used here is sidebars.  In particular, I was hugely impressed by the family tree for Harriet Tubman.  What an important and rarely seen part of her life!  I learned a lot too.  For example, we often hear about how she returned in order to rescue family members from slavery.  But it’s less frequently mentioned that some had already been sold and she merely had to hope they received their freedom at the end of the Civil War.

She Came to Slay Harriet Tubman Family Tree resized
Harriet Tubman’s family tree in She Came to Slay put her life into a whole new perspective for me.

The book is broken down into four major sections.  Minty’s Story tells about her early life and first marriage, everything up until she escaped.  She Ain’t Sorry covers her work on the Underground Railroad and early free life.  Bawss Lady is about the Civil War, and her tireless, frequently unpaid and unrecognized, work as a nurse, spy, and more.  Call Me Mrs. Davis covers the rest of her life after the war, including her second marriage, adopted daughter, and struggles to get a pension and recognition for her military service in the Civil War.

This reminded me very strongly of Facing Frederick although the format was somewhat different.  I think they would complement each other nicely for a classroom or homeschool study.  Dunbar does however take a very conversational, narrative non-fiction style.  I haven’t read many large-format biographies with this method, but it was very successful.  Young people will probably find the book much more engaging because of the writing and composition.  There are some difficult but truthful bits of history, so I’d suggest sticking to upper middle school, high school, all the way up to adult.

She Came to Slay Harriet Tubman 20 dollar bill endpaper resized
The final pages of She Came to Slay poignantly ask why the proposed change to the US$20 bill has not yet happened.

All of the design work behind this book was so clever, that I have to mention Jason Snyder briefly.  Truly all the members of this team did a great job.  The book ends with a spread about the proposed change of the $20 bill from Andrew Jackson to Harriet Tubman and rightly questions the delay in this change.

Although we have a lot of books about the big five, I frequently weary of rereading and reviewing them.  This is a book about Harriet Tubman that I feel very confident highly recommending to all libraries, teachers, and families.  It’s informative and engaging and the unique artwork and formatting helps it stand out.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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