Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad Analysis

Ann Petry

Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Ann Petry’s Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad is a straightforward, dramatically compelling, well-researched biography on one of the leading figures in the so-called Underground Railroad that guided slaves from the South to freedom in the North and helped to accelerate the abolition of slavery in the United States. Harriet Tubman contains twenty-two chapters, which focus on particular periods in Tubman’s life. They tend to be self-contained, and the focus remains tightly on Tubman throughout the text. The only exception lies in the italicized paragraphs that end each chapter; in them, Petry describes concurrent events, relevant quotes, or individuals who will appear later in Tubman’s life. The italicized paragraphs shed further light on the slavery issue and provide fascinating perspective and context to Tubman’s story.

The narrative can be divided into five sections. The first is Tubman’s childhood as a slave, when she was nicknamed Minty or Minta, and her early tendencies toward resistance. The second section is her adolescence, when she dropped the diminutive nickname and was called Harriet, rebelled more openly, and eventually escaped through the precarious network of communication, transportation, and places of safety that constituted the Underground Railroad. The third period consists of the years during which she repeatedly returned to eastern Maryland to help others flee to freedom. During this...

(The entire section is 466 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The biography begins in 1820 with Tubman's birth into an environment of considerable uncertainty and tension. At this time, economic hardships plague plantation owners on Maryland's Eastern Shore, so they are selling slaves to traders farther south. The possibility of being sold in response to the current economic uncertainty creates anxiety among the slaves on Edward Brodas's plantation where Tubman is born. They want freedom, but they remain uncertain of the fate of the free Negroes who have escaped to the North.

Brodas's plantation comprises the "Big House," the cookhouse, the stables, and the "quarter" where the slaves live. Slave housing consists of a group of one-room windowless shacks, all alike and sparsely furnished, with crude fireplaces, dirt floors, and smoking chimneys. Although the nearby Buckwater River isolates the Brodas plantation, communication between slaves is so quick and efficient that they usually have advance knowledge about the arrival of slave traders as well as some idea about who will be sold. The plantation owners' increasing tension about escaped slaves and the slaves' apprehension about being sold combine to make the social atmosphere particularly unstable the year Tubman is born.

(The entire section is 188 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Petry's essentially straightforward presentation makes the work accessible to most readers. Although a limited number of passages contain elaborate descriptions, the novel as a whole features a clear, interesting, and unsentimental style. Petry sets forth a vivid description of the plantation and other settings without lingering long over particular scenes. She smoothly incorporates many details about slavery into the action of the novel. For instance, when attempting to keep escaped slaves motivated to continue their arduous journey, Tubman often describes the horrors of the Middle Passage, the journey on slave ships from Africa to the U.S. Graphic but controlled scenes dramatize the pain and terror of the Middle Passage, and they help put Tubman's activities into historical context.

Intermittent flashbacks further contribute to the novel's strong historical framework, and at the end of each chapter Petry gives a historical account of relevant national events taking place at the same time Tubman's story unfolds. Though the resulting change in tone makes these accounts seem somewhat intrusive, they provide valuable insights into the world in which Tubman lived. Some contain compelling quotations that clarify characterizations; others serve as a kind of foreshadowing of events that will directly affect Tubman later in the novel, such as the account of Thomas and Sarah Garrett's move to Wilmington, Delaware, in 1820, the year of Tubman's birth.


(The entire section is 342 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Petry portrays the social issues surrounding slavery with great sensitivity. She shows how a compassionate woman dramatically improved the lives of many others through nonviolent rebellion against grave social injustices. The narrative condemns the institution of slavery without vilifying specific individuals or groups, and objectively analyzes the economic and social conditions that promoted slavery. It also addresses universal issues such as the tendency of the ruling class to abuse power and the ability of the oppressed to effect positive social change through the power of cooperation.

(The entire section is 86 words.)


(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Bell, Bernard. “Ann Petry’s Demythologizing of American Culture and Afro-American Character.” In Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Clark, Keith. “A Distaff Dream Deferred? Ann Petry and the Art of Subversion.” African-American Review 26 (Fall, 1992): 495-505.

Ervin, Hazel Arnett, and Hilary Holladay, eds. Ann Petry’s Short Fiction: Critical Essays. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004.

Gross, Theodore. “Ann Petry: The Novelist as Social Critic.” In Black Fiction: New Studies in the Afro-American Novel Since 1945, edited by A. Robert Lee. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1980.

Hernton, Calvin. “The Significance of Ann Petry.” In The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers. New York: Doubleday, 1987.

Holladay, Hilary. Ann Petry. New York: Twayne, 1996.

Petry, Ann. “A MELUS Interview: Ann Petry—The New England Connection.” Interview by Mark Wilson. MELUS 15 (Summer, 1988): 71-84.

Washington, Gladys. “A World Made Cunningly: A Closer Look at Ann Petry’s Short Fiction.” College Language Association Journal 30 (September, 1986): 14-29.

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Discuss features of Tubman's character that enable her to carry out her mission so effectively.

2. Tubman never learns to read and write. What special abilities does she use to compensate for this handicap?

3. What character traits exhibited by Tubman show the influence of her father? Her mother? Which parent seems to contribute more to Tubman's value system?

4. The Underground Railroad is naturally filled with risks and uncertainties. Which incident, in your opinion, is the most dangerous? The most suspenseful?

5. Why does John Tubman threaten to inform the master if Tubman attempts to escape? Explain the difference between John's status and Tubman's on the plantation.

6. Although Tubman continues her work after the disappointment she suffers when her husband marries another woman during her absence, what evidence in the book suggests the permanent hurt she feels as a result of this betrayal?

7. Explain how John Brown's death affects Tubman. Do you view her reactions as negative or positive?

(The entire section is 156 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Write a character analysis of William Still or Thomas Garrett using descriptive terms and specific incidents from the book as evidence for your evaluation of the person.

2. Denmark Vesey, a free black, and Nat Turner, a Virginia slave, organized two of the best known slave revolts. Using reliable historical sources, research the motivations and strategies of one of these men. Comment as well on the consequences of the revolt.

3. This narrative includes several slave songs. Select two of these songs and discuss how the messages or implied messages of the songs relate to Tubman's pain or hopes.

4. Research and report on three abolitionists whose efforts contributed to the success of the Underground Railroad. Specify their contributions.

5. Historians and critics across the years have given conflicting interpretations of the slave songs. Find two conflicting interpretations and write a short paper in which you discuss the view that seems most logical to you.

6. Select the one scene from the biography that best illustrates the essence of Tubman's character. Identify and analyze the character traits emphasized in that scene.

(The entire section is 176 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Tituba of Salem Village, published in 1964, is a fictionalized biography about Tituba, a black slave from Barbados, who becomes a part of the infamous Salem witch trials. Like Harriet Tubman, this work sensitively portrays a black woman living in a hostile white society.

(The entire section is 43 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Barksdale, Richard, and Keneth Kinnamon, eds. Black Writers of America: A Comprehensive Anthology. New York: Macmillan, 1972. The editors of this anthology give a biographical-literary sketch of Petry and a bibliography of secondary sources. They also include her famous short story "Like a Winding Sheet."

Bradford, Sarah H. Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. 1869. Rev. ed. Harriet: The Moses of Her People. New York: Lockwood, 1886. Bradford had access to the living Tubman, her friends, and her family as she wrote these two versions of Tubman's life. Differences in the two versions generally center on how many trips Tubman made into the South and how many slaves she actually led to freedom.


(The entire section is 360 words.)