In the summertime, historian Tiya Miles loves to work on the porch of her home in Montana. It’s out on that porch that she is speaking via Zoom, bathed in sunlight and framed by lush greenery.
She’s long found the outdoors to be inspiring, just like the trailblazing 19th-century women at the center of her forthcoming Wild Girls (Norton, Sept.), which argues that historical figures such as Harriet Tubman and Louisa May Alcott were deeply influenced by the time they spent in nature.
For years, Miles had been thinking in one way or another about the argument at the center of Wild Girls: that the lives and work of notable women throughout U.S. history, from authors to activists, were shaped by their early experiences in the outdoors. She traces the genesis of this idea to a 2005 conference where she attended a presentation that framed Harriet Tubman as someone uniquely attuned to and interested in the natural world, given the ecological knowledge she had to possess to map the outdoor routes of the Underground Railroad.
“It fascinated me, because I was already a scholar of slavery, and had focused in particular on enslaved Black women,” Miles says. “I had never thought of Harriet Tubman that way.” It was, she says, “an awakening.”
After the conference and a subsequent environmental justice tour of Detroit, she thought more seriously about incorporating an “environmental sensibility” into her work. She researched how an environmental consciousness had informed the lives of Tubman as well as other enslaved Black women in the 19th century, and found that the perils of enslaved life “required a hyper-awareness of nature” as both a resource and a refuge. She was also eager to practice this sensibility outside of the academy, so in 2011 she founded ECO Girls, a program geared toward building environmental stewardship, ecological literacy, and self-confidence in elementary and middle school girls.
Among ECO Girls’ many admirers was Alane Mason, v-p and executive editor at Norton. When the publisher was developing its Norton Shorts series in 2020, Mason asked Miles if she would write a book for it inspired by ECO Girls. The idea intrigued Miles, and she realized that if she was going to write a book based on the project, it wouldn’t be about ECO Girls specifically, but rather “eco girls” in the broadest sense—those who shared Miles’s same passions and concerns for the outdoors.
“I bet Alane was surprised when I submitted a proposal all about women of the past,” Miles jokes. The book’s historical cast includes Tubman, Alcott, Zitkála-Šá, and the Fort Shaw Indian School’s all-girls basketball team, who in 1904 became World Champions.
After Mason gave her “free rein,” Miles says the book “took on this feeling of joy and exploration and adventure and excitement and possibility, even in the context of adversity and difficulty and pain.”
For the book, Miles synthesized years of her own scholarship and conducted new research, including visits to Montana’s Fort Shaw Indian School with her husband, who is an enrolled member of Aaniiih–Gros Ventre tribal nation of Montana, and their children, who are also enrolled members.
Throughout her research, Miles was deeply moved by how many young women in the 19th century, many of them women of color, found “light and courage” in nature amid oppression: in forests beyond the plantation, Tubman studied the sky and communed with God; in the gardens and fields outside her home, Alcott could be her tomboyish, roughhousing self; on the open-air basketball court away from the classroom, the girls of Fort Shaw reveled in their own speed, strength, and ability.
Born and raised in Cincinnati, Miles earned a bachelor’s degree in Afro-American studies from Harvard, a master’s in women’s studies from Emory University, and a PhD in American studies from the University of Minnesota before becoming a history professor at Harvard.
She began her writing career publishing with university presses, and for a while her readership was largely confined to the academy. That was until her breakout book, All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack (Random House), in 2021.
All That She Carried, which traces the path of a cotton sack from the 1850s as it’s passed down through three generations of Black women, was a bestseller and won the National Book Award.
Miles says she was “completely surprised” by the critical and commercial response to it, having had “very modest expectations” when she first pitched it. (She recalls one editor telling her that the story was “small.”) But as she worked on it, she realized she had something special on her hands. At one point, she says, she found herself “crying at something I had written.” Yet she refuses to take sole credit for the book’s success, instead acknowledging the “ancestral connection” that helped shepherd the book. “I just felt the ancestors were with me,” she says. “I did not write alone.”
Miles has also published four books on 19th-century American history with academic presses. “I benefited greatly from academic press publishing because there were so many levels of vetting,” she says, referring to the peer reviewers who evaluate titles prepublication. “I really felt that there was a very serious review process, and that was important to me.”
The rest of her books have been published by trade presses—New Press, Norton, and Random House—where she enjoys the freedom “to be more accessible, more subjective, more personally revealing.” And Random House has given Miles editorial freedom in more ways than one. Soon after the publication of All That She Carried, Miles approached her editor, Molly Turpin, with an unexpected idea: to revise and reissue her 2015 novel, The Cherokee Rose, which had been published by indie press John F. Blair. Its narrative explores the entwined lives of Indigenous and enslaved Black people on a Cherokee-owned plantation in the early 19th century; Miles was eager to revisit this in light of the recent shift in the Cherokee Nation toward accepting Black members, spurred partly by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Turpin, whom Miles calls “such a supporter for my ideas,” agreed, and the pair spent last summer working on the new version, which hit shelves last month with a different ending and more emphasis on characterization, among other changes. The revision process was done outside on Miles’s porch, under the sun and rustling trees, an experience Miles called “rhapsodic.”
Miles has always found solace and self-assurance in nature. As a girl, she was “fairly inward turned,” more partial to the company of books than people. “I remember trying to find escapes, places to be quiet and read and think,” she recalls. In the Cincinnati neighborhoods where she grew up, those escapes came in many forms: bushes she slipped between, trees she sat under, tracts of undeveloped land and abandoned lots where she wandered for hours. The outdoors offered her a sense of both adventure and shelter: “Being outside was just magical for me.”
As an adult, she never gave much thought to how time spent outdoors has shaped her, or could have shaped other women throughout history. “This is something I didn’t think about until writing the book,” she says. In writing, Miles found that the outside world afforded many 19th-century women freedom of movement—both physical and imaginative—that they could access nowhere else, just as it had for her. Tubman used her knowledge of the forest and the sky to chart a literal path toward liberation. Alcott explored the outdoors to break away from rigid Victorian-era domestic spaces and forge her signature sense of independence. And the Native American students at Fort Shaw, demeaned and disciplined in the classroom, reclaimed their agency and identity on outdoor basketball courts.
With Wild Girls, Miles intended to explore the impact of the outdoors on these women—but she did not imagine just how profound that impact was. She says, smiling, “That part of the story was surprising.”