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Book review: Truth or dare

Sojourner Truth by Nell Irvin Painter, Norton pounds 21
On a misty, unrecorded day in the late 1790s a slave baby called Isabella was born in New York City. At nine, she was wrenched from her family and auctioned. Twenty years of physical and sexual abuse by countless owners followed. At 30, as slavery gradually ended, she claimed freedom - even though it meant leaving husband and children still enslaved.

Dizzied by emancipation, she fell into born-again religion, cleaving to a fanatical, sexually driven sect. In middle age, she renamed herself "Sojourner Truth" - Pentecostal preacher, abolitionist and, if she'd known the word, feminist. The publication of her dictated Narrative (whose proceeds bought her first house) and skilful use of publicity photos, ensured that she died a black American icon. And she has been promoted as such an overwhelmingly evocative symbol of American cultural history that, when an explorer was sent to roam Mars this year, it was called Sojourner.

That's the story. Or is it? It is hard to squeeze sense or meaning from Painter's sticky, almost wilfully orotund biography. The cover photo is startling - a strong, bony black woman whose hard, mannish hands cradle her knitting, stares accusingly through white, lozenge-rimmed spectacles. The details of Truth's life seem equally seductive, but the biographer's tortuously scholarly prose pushes the reader away.

To be fair, Truth's posthumous sanctification clouded the facts. Though illiterate, she was her own spin-doctor, vetting the photos and cannily adjusting biographical details that jarred with her Pentecostal picture. Her biographer claims to have studied this "chasm" between the real and the glossed version of Truth, yet her prose is still exceedingly unenlightening, delighting in obfuscation. Answers on a postcard for the meaning of: "Holiness spoke to her as one who had succumbed to the sin of vanity."

So is this Princeton history Professor (who makes frequent references to "my work") just a less than adequate wordsmith, or is there something more subtle going on? So many slippery questions remain unexplored. Why did Truth retain affection (even in freedom) for an owner who abused her? Despite her feminist tenacity, why did she alight again and again on brutal patriarchal set-ups - sniffing out the submissive role and making it her own?

Painter virtually ignores these psychological minefields. Why? In case they deplete the icon? It's as if, in fleshing out the myth of Sojourner Truth, she daren't give us permission to scrutinise the scrubby little inconsistencies that might actually bring her to life.