The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Our book club has always been a great group of girls. Our newest member, Kim, is proving to be a wonderful addition. She came in at the perfect time. We’d just finished a full rotation of each existing member choosing a book. When Kim chose The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead for us to read, I knew in that moment that she’d fit right in.  

I am of the belief that everyone should diversify their reading with stories of other times and other cultures. Kim really brought this to the table.

The Underground Railroad was a hard read for me. Being of an empathic nature, the treatment of slaves described in the book really got to me. I’d read for a while and have to put down the book to cry a bit.

The book is based from different point of views. The main ones are of a slave named Cora, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, and a slave named Caesar. There are others throughout the book that feed the storyline and give better understanding to the inner workings of the characters. Cora was born a slave. Her mother and grandmother were slaves on the Randal plantation. The Randal brothers are a hateful duo. The most despicable brother takes over the plantation with all slaves included at his brother’s death. He makes an example of the slaves, subjecting them to horrifying methods of torture. To make matters worse, if a friend or family member of the tortured slave shows any sort of emotion, they are beaten along with their loved one. All members of our club agreed that this was how a slave owner would discourage relationships among slaves so that they would not band together and/or plot runaway attempts.

We discussed how the slaves in the book almost had a social hierarchy among them. There was social standing as well as survival of the fittest. The weakest links were sent to live in their own house called the Hob.

When Cora witnesses an especially vicious beating of a slave, she decides she’s had enough. Caesar had come to her before and asked her to leave with him. At the time, it seemed ludicrous. However, the more she mulls it over, the more sense it makes. When she was a child, Cora’s mother escaped the plantation and was the only slave so far to successfully to do so.

As Cora and Caesar make their escape, another slave named Lovey tags along. A series of unfortunate events leads to Lovey being taken and an even bigger man hunt gets underway for the escapees.

Cora and Caesar make it to South Carolina using The Underground Railroad. This brings a bit of the fantastical to the book in that the railroad is an actual railroad that moves through tunnels from location to location.  

Under assumed identities, they are allowed to learn and hold jobs. While everything seems to be going great, an unseen storm is brewing on the horizon.

In a turn of events, Cora has to flee and is unsure about the fate of her friend Caesar. Just as she is unsure about the fate of Lovey and her mother.

Ridgeway is a slave catcher. The only slave thus far to ever evade him is Cora’s mother, Mabel. It has been his humiliation and what has kept him up at night. This makes him all the more determined to catch Cora and her running mate. He and his men catch up with Cora and have her in their grips when things shift from their favor. The author does a nice job of switching perspectives and seeing things, however wrong, from Ridgeway’s point of view.

This book is ripe with nail biting scenarios. You find yourself rooting for Cora and hoping that her life has some semblance of happiness. Her story and the supporting stories in the book are some that everyone in our book club agreed will stick with you. It is a raw, honest view of slavery and what those in that time period lived with.

Learning the fates of Mabel, Caesar, and Lovey bring suspence and some closure to the book while others leave your heart in turmoil.

It is a great group of stories that intertwine  to make up a powerful book. History books tell us about the evils of slavery and the horrors endured by those who lived it. Seeing it from the perspective of a slave leaves necessary wounds on your heart and helps tie what African Americans have dealt with in their ongoing quest for equality. The Underground Railroad makes you think, makes you feel, and while not to be undertaken lightly, is an important read. 

Quotes:

Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.

The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others.

The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.


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