How they leap off the page ... a rich resurrection of a forgotten history ... [Hartman's] rigor and restraint give her writing its distinctive electricity and tension. Hartman is a sleuth of the archive; she draws extensively from plantation documents, missionary tracts, whatever traces she can find— but she is vocal about the challenge of using such troubling documents, the risk one runs of reinscribing their authority. Similarly, she is keen to identify moments of defiance and joy in the lives of her subjects, but is wary of the 'obscene' project to revise history, to insist upon autonomy where there may have been only survival, 'to make the narrative of defeat into an opportunity for celebration' ... Hartman is most original in her approach to gaps in a story, which she shades in with speculation and sometimes fictional imagining—a technique she has used in all her work but never quite so fully as in this new book ... This kind of beautiful, immersive narration exists for its own sake but it also counteracts the most common depictions of black urban life from this time—the frozen, coerced images, Hartman calls them, most commonly of mothers and children in cramped kitchens and bedrooms.
... clearly presents Hartman’s underlying values as a researcher: that no life is insignificant, that suppressed narratives deserve daylight, that we hold within us the capacity to expand history with our imagination and shared humanity ... I have, in conversation with other writers, debated the merits of speculative nonfiction as a genre, but Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is a perfect case study in the necessity of such a genre ... Extending her experiences as a human, as a woman, as a person of color, Hartman is able to convincingly stitch a line between fact an intuition, presenting full narratives on behalf of women that might have otherwise remained single-word entries in the record: vagrant, prostitute, wayward, loose ... The beauty in the wayward, the fiction in the facts, and the thriving existence in the face of a blanked out history are the recurring motifs of Wayward Lives, and as a beautiful experiment in its own right, it shines through as a successful one.
Hartman’s real interest is in these young women—those who who ran away from grinding labor and resisted the trap of good behavior. In granting these forgotten women a voice, and conjuring their longing for freedom, Hartman resists the century-long diminution of their lives to social problems ... pushes beyond the effort to recover forgotten stories, in order to tell them in a deliberately poetic, evocative way ... That perspective transforms the so-called slum from a place of incipient criminality into a space of intimacy, love and tenderness, for all that it coexists with violence and suffering. Woven together in this remarkable book, these stories remind us how much is lost when histories focus only on what’s visible on the surface, on the stories that come down to us polished and preserved by the powerful; they demonstrate that the best of intentions to improve other people’s lives are liable to harm as well as help, so long as the people affected are not allowed to speak for themselves. The result is an effect more usually associated with fiction than history, of inspiring a powerful imaginative empathy—not only towards characters in the distant past but towards the strangers all around us, whose humanity we share.