In telling the stories of Martha Wright and Frances Seward, Ms. Wickenden relies heavily on their letters and diaries and those of close family members. The result is an intimate, detailed portrait of the women, including the effect that their activism had on their families ... Harriet Tubman, who was illiterate and left no written record, is nevertheless the one who comes most alive in the book’s pages ... One of the pleasures of The Agitators is the cast of supporting characters who pass through its pages ... carries no political message, but Ms. Wickenden’s assessment of the era leading up to the Civil War will resonate with readers in our own fractious age: 'The nation never had been so politically engaged—or so divided.'
... epic and intimate ... Collective biography is a difficult business. The voice of each character needs to emerge distinctly, yet the ensemble should be richer than the sum of its solos...Wickenden confronts steeper obstacles. In no account of their own lives would Wright, Seward or Tubman have made one another principal characters. And the documentary record upon which The Agitators rests is uneven and sometimes precarious. Wickenden’s commitment to keeping her trio in the frame and in focus showcases prodigious narrative control. The Agitators is a masterpiece, not least, of structure, as each of the title characters dons her mantle, takes the stage and does a turn, usually at arm’s length from the others ... Entwining these three asymmetrical lives as deftly as Wickenden does proves illuminating. Tubman’s actions reveal the existential stakes of Wright’s and Seward’s agitations. Her freedom journeys made their words flesh. But for all the excellence of The Agitators, there is monumental work yet to be done about the 'She-Moses,' the hundreds she wrested from Pharaoh’s grip and their thousands of descendants.
Wickenden knows a thing or two about writing with grace and economy, and she seamlessly braids her subjects' stories together into a riveting book ... While Tubman's mythic labors personify the courage of the anti-slavery struggle, Frances Seward's conflicted conscience embodies the anguish of a country longing for peace but moving toward war. Wickenden draws heavily from Frances' correspondence with Henry Seward, and her letters, by turn affectionate and anguished, are an eloquent testament to her divided soul ... Wickenden distills the violence that consumed the country before the Civil War, its bloody progress and the toxic political divisions in its aftermath. But she never loses her focus on her subjects. She weaves their stories together with gravity and humor in a narrative so tightly knit it reads like accomplished literary fiction ... The Agitators will move you, and it will make you sad. So much of what convulsed the country in the 19th century remains with us: mob violence, virulent racism and an appalling disregard for human dignity. But there's another message: People of fierce and heartfelt principles can bend history to their will. If you're an agitator, even a quiet one, read this book.
... accessible, engaging writing ... The author effectively places Seward, Wright, and Tubman in historical context. Accounts of Tubman’s life in the Underground Railroad and as a scout in the Union army shine particularly brightly, narrated like the daring exploits they were ... Filling a gap in the telling of women’s and abolitionist history, this highly readable book gives these three women their due. Wickenden’s deft touch will allow this book to appeal to a wide audience.
Wickenden brings three fascinating women to life in rich, humanizing detail, and shares how their 'insubordination' against slavery and the oppression of women brought them together ... Wickenden pulls this history out of the dry dustiness of fact and adds color and warmth to its retelling. The women of our shared past deserve more treatments like this.
[Wickenden] brings a reporter’s eye for detail to this complex history ... Wickenden’s detailed account of these women and their friendship weaves together Tubman’s escape from enslavement, the complexities of Lincoln’s early slavery policy, the beginnings of the women’s rights movement in the U.S. and their imperfect intersections. Using primary sources such as the women’s own letters, Wickenden invites readers to take a closer look at the path of American progress and the women who guided it.
Wickenden has mined the annals of social, political and cultural history in composing this complex, wide-ranging tome. She shows each woman in particular situations that highlight her aspirations ... Wickenden is participating in that ongoing process, bringing their accomplishments and shared goals to light for a new generation.
Wickenden expertly weaves together the biographies of 'co-conspirators and intimate friends' Harriet Tubman, Martha Wright, and Frances Seward in this novelistic history ... Through extensive research and fluid writing, Wickenden rescues Wright and Seward from obscurity and provides a new perspective on Tubman’s life and work. This is an essential addition to the history of American progressivism.
Wickenden braids together the intersecting threads of their lives and accomplishments into a highly readable, instructive historical narrative ... in the strength of the bonds forged among Wright, Seward, and Tubman, Wickenden offers hope for a healing of old wounds and a future where 'the dignity and equality of all Americans' is an authentic reality ... A well-researched, sharp portrait of the 'protagonists in an inside-out story about the second American revolution.'