The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

     In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

     Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share. 

Cora the female slave who flees the Georgia plantation where she was born, risking everything in pursuit of freedom, much the way her mother, Mabel, did years before. Cora and her friend Caesar are pursued by a slave catcher named Ridgeway, whose failure to find Mabel has made him all the more determined to hunt Cora and destroy the abolitionist network that has aided her.

Traveling from Georgia to South Carolina to North Carolina to Tennessee to Indiana, Cora must try to elude not just Ridgeway, but also other bounty hunters, informers and lynch mobs with help, along the way, from a few dedicated “railroad” workers, both black and white, willing to risk their lives to save hers.

It is within this game of cat and mouse that ColWhitehead reveals the core of his story. At first it is difficult to see past the gore and truths of the time, but the human kindness and how that, in spite of all the troubles then and now, are at the centre of what it means to be human. It showcases human endurance, reminding us of the pain people would suffer in order to have the lives that we take for granted. You will leave the book feeling a sense of gratitude.

The real Underground Railroad was a metaphor for the people and places, that slaves would use in order to escape and gain freedom. But just as this story makes clear, it was a gruesome endeavour, one that showcased humans at their best and absolute worst.

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