But every slave thinks about it. In the morning and in the afternoon and in the night. Dreaming of it. Every dream a dream of escape even when it didn’t look like it.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is a poignant look at the oppression of slavery and one girls attempt at escape.
Know your value and you know your place in the order. To escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principles of your existence: impossible
Born into slavery, Cora quickly gained a reputation when her mother became the only successful person to escape the Randall Plantation. A quick temper and kind heart lead Cora into trouble but also quite possibly saved her life.
A feeling settled over Cora. She had not been under its spell in years, since she brought the hatchet down on Blake’s doghouse and sent the splinters into the air. She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to stop theft. She had seen boys and girls younger than this beaten and had done nothing. This night the feeling settled on her heart again. It grabbed hold of her and before the slave part of her caught up with the human part of her, she was bent over the boy’s body as a shield. She held the cane in her hand like a swamp man handling a snake and saw the ornament at its tip. The silver wolf bared its silver teeth. Then the cane was out of her hand. It came down on her head. It crashed down again and this time the silver teeth ripped across her eyes and her blood splattered the dirt.
Scenes like this paint a vivid picture of the horrors regularly witnessed by slaves and sustain a visceral reaction.
Cora is approached by a fellow slave, Caesar, to join him in his attempt at escape. They set out on their journey along the underground railroad.
The stairs led onto a small platform. The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light colored stones in an alternating pattern. The sheer industry that had made such a project possible. Cora and Caesar noticed the rails. Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel, pinned into the dirt by wooden crossties.
Whitehead masterfully blends suspense with a touch of fantasy as the underground rail road proves not to be what we learned about in history class but rather what we all pictured: a working railroad with railcars, conductors and all.
In the train, in the deathless tunnel, she had finally asked him why he brought her with him. Caesar said, “Because I knew you could do it.”
The journey takes them from Georgia, through the Carolinas to Tennessee and finally Indiana and along the way Cora learns just how deep the injustice of her situation runs.
She didn’t understand the words, most of them at any rate, but created equal was not lost on her. The white men who wrote it didn’t understand it either, if all men did not truly mean all men. Not if they snatched away what belonged to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom.
Cora is secreted away by aides of the railroad at the great expense of being caught by the frenetic slave catcher Ridgeway who is hell-bent on catching the daughter of his once eluded prey. She learns all at once the lengths of human kindness and revenge.
Out in the world, the wicked escaped comeuppance and the decent stood in their stead at the whipping tree.
Powerful, emotive and, at times, garish The Underground Railroad is a timely narrative the urges readers to honor the struggle and sacrifice of those before us for things we often take for granted today.
The only way to know how long you are lost in the darkness is to be saved from it.
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A review copy of this title was provided by Doubleday via Netgalley.