Originally published: 2016
Author: Colson Whitehead
Set in: Georgia, USA
Genre: Historical Fiction
Page count: 366
Reading dates: 1-7 May 2018
Star Rating: 5/5
“Cora didn’t know what optimistic meant. She asked the other girls that night if they were familiar with the word. None of them had heard it before. She decided that it meant trying.”
I always knew this would be good but I also knew it’d be a hard read so this book sat on my shelves for a while before I picked it up.
Set in pre-civil war America, the story centres around Cora, a girl in her late teens who was born on a cotton plantation in Georgia. After a particularly horrific beating, Cora is persuaded to escape the plantation with Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia. He tells her about the Underground Railroad, a way for slaves to escape from their tyrannous owners.
Despite being based around Cora, we also have chapters told from the point of view of other characters including Ridgeway, a relentless slave catcher who is sent to bring back Cora and Caesar, the people who help them along the way and also Cora’s mother who escaped the plantation herself, leaving Cora behind at the age of 11.
The cleverness in this book is that the Underground Railroad has assumed a physical form – actual stations built under sympathetic peoples houses, and tunnels and trains that travel through them taking escaped slaves to safety (or as safe as they’ll ever be).
This book is a brutal read – everything about how the slaves, black people and their sympathisers were treated was horrific. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2017, it’s important to read books like this though so we don’t forget the darker periods of our history.
The Real Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early to mid-19th century, and used by African-American slaves to escape into free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause.
The network now generally known as the Underground Railroad was formed in the late 1700s, ran north to the free states and Canada, and reached its height between 1850 and 1860. One estimate suggests that by 1850, 100,000 slaves had escaped via the “Railroad”.
British North America (present-day Canada), where slavery was prohibited, was a popular destination, as its long border gave many points of access. Most former slaves settled in Ontario. More than 30,000 people were said to have escaped there via the network during its 20-year peak period, although U.S. Census figures account for only 6,000. Numerous fugitives’ stories are documented in the 1872 book The Underground Railroad Records by William Still, an abolitionist who then headed the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee.