Category: Book Reviews

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

incidents book cover

This review is going up just as my video review is going up, too! If you like watching book reviews (aka, BookTube!), feel free to check out my channel.

With this book, I had to read and explore its contents for a lengthy paper over the last few months in my final semester of my Bachelor’s program. I, therefore, gave this book a lot more attention than I think is normal for me. While we didn’t discuss this one in class, I personally pulled out themes and issues in order to write a cohesive paper. (I got an A on it by the way!)

Incidents was written in the 1850s by Harriet Jacobs after she had escaped slavery, and the majority of the book centers on her desire to protect her children from slavery. She has to deal with lurid propositions and threats from her master, which start when she is just 14. I don’t think she is ever physically beaten, though her master slaps her a couple of times throughout the book. She does describe seeing what other slaves go through, and she’s of course in constant fear.

This story is a memoir, though when it was published no one believed a slave, let alone a female slave, could really write her own story. It was commonly accepted that a white person wrote this story as abolitionist propaganda, and for decades people considered this a work of fiction. However, in the 20th century, researchers connected the names of the characters to real life people. (Jacobs changed everyone’s name in the book, including her own.)

I must admit I’ve never read a narrative written by a slave before. In fact, I believe my only direct experience has been watching the film, 12 Years A Slave. That is a brutal movie that depicts slavery as I had always imagined it. Incidents, however, depicts it in a different way. Jacobs is in constant contact with her grandmother, who has her own house near Jacobs’ master. Jacobs even sleeps there most of the time. This was confusing to me, that a master would give a slave so much, well, freedom. But I suppose it happened because her master favored her, and wanted her to do certain things for him. I trust what is written here, but it was a new depiction of slavery that I didn’t expect.

Additionally, when trying to secure her freedom, Jacobs does something that I think is nearly impossible. However, considering what slaves faced daily, I do believe she actually did it. What I’m talking about is the fact that she spent years hiding in a small attic, unable to stand up right for most of that time. It’s shocking that someone could go through that.

Because it was difficult for me to really connect with the story Jacobs was telling though I wanted to believe her, I sometimes felt she could have been embellishing the truth. Even though this story was her autobiography, it was also a work of propaganda to help people understand what slaves went through, and therefore to help abolish slavery. Could she have made things seem a bit more over-the-top in order to help her cause? I’m not sure. Many times she addresses the reader directly, telling them they cannot understand her situation because they’ve never lived as she has. It’s a very emotional piece.

I guess I still struggle with how true it is, but I’m inclined to believe it. I also enjoyed reading it. I wanted to know how she would get to her freedom, turning the pages quickly even though it was an assignment. I rated the book 5 stars, though it’s somewhat difficult to rate and review memoir. I fall back on how good the writing is, I think. I know some people would disagree because someone’s personal story shouldn’t necessarily be boiled down to that. But if I find, as subjectively as possible, that the story is written well, then I enjoy it, and I rate it higher. However, each memoir must be considered separately because one topic can be so different from the next.

I would recommend this one to just about anyone. It’s not very graphic because Jacobs was aware of her audience. She didn’t want to offend them. Instead, she pulls on their heartstrings, hoping for an emotional response to her story. Like I said earlier, this is a very different slavery story than I’m used to, and I think it’s better to have various narratives out there. Read it!

(There’s also a video review up on my YouTube channel if you’re interested!)