Even though I had taken the American History class in high school, I have to admit that I honestly don’t remember much about the horrors of slavery and the cruelties and mistreatement towards the African-Americans. I do remember mostly about how the civil war was won, and how slavery was abolished and how Christopher Columbus discovered America. (I feel we were given a white man’s perspective of US history!)
Before I dug into The Underground Railroad, I did a quick brief research into what it is exactly. Turns out that there did exist an entire system of underground railroad network systems to enable the African-Americans to escape to the Free States. I was so fascinated by this while concept and wondered why we were never taught about this.
We follow the life of one slave woman called Cora, who works at a slave plantation in Georgia. She resents her mother Mabel a lot, who seemingly have abandoned her daughter and ran off (we later find out what really happened though).
Caeser, who is also working at the same plantation, devises a plan to escape from Georgia through the underground network of railroads. He convinces Cora to join, who initially refuses but then agrees to escape her slave master Ridgeway.
During her escape on a train to North Carolina, Cora encounters several different groups of people, some sympathetic, others not. One group manages to capture her friend Lovey during a raid, while another time Cora is forced to kill a teenage so she could escape.
Meanwhile, Ridgeway finds out about Cora and Caeser’s escape and pursues them. He especially wants to capture Cora in his fit of revenge as Mabel had managed to escape Ridgeway.
Arriving in South Carolina, Cora is taken in by people sympathetic to slaves. She is also employed by them and is led to believed she is safe. However, she finds out plans of sterilixing black women and using black men for medical tests. She escapes from there.
There are several other such incidents Cora endures, and each time we think she is safe, but then one thing or other happens, forcing Cora to escape.
It’s not all rosy for her, as she is eventually captured by Ridgeway, who takes her back to Georgia. However, en route, Cora figures out a plan to escape.
This is one of those books where I feel like that it’s more about the journey I was asked to experience with Cora. I don’t think this is the kind of book which I will say I like or don’t like. Instead, I merely experienced Cora’s journey, and witnessed the horrors of being black slave.
Those were incredibly troublesome times. To know of how slaves were kept in captivity and tortured made me think of the extent a human being can go to kill someone.
Although this novel is a work of fiction, I began to feel like that perhaps the writer may have used some references from true life incidents. At times, the novel felt like such a real story, especially when Cora is given a safe space a white couple in their attic.
The detailed descriptions of the setting and atmosphere has been written extremely well, so much so, I actually felt like I was there in those broken carts Cora traveled in, or the smell of the slaves who hadn’t washed themselves, or the claustrophobia inducing environments when Cora is hiding.
There is enough tension in this novel, especially when Ridgeway is involved. He may come across as a one dimensional character at times, which is a let down. But that doesn’t take away the tension his character induces. There are moments, especially when Cora is close to being captured, that made me anxious and worried for her. I wanted so much for her to escape and live a free life. That’s how involved I got with her life.
There is hope too. Cora is a person who doesn’t give up, she fights for her freedom, despite being abandoned by her mother, given up by people who supposedly harboured her, and tortured and beaten up.
Given all what’s happening in the US today, there were parts of the book that reminded me of the way the African Americans are being treated with such hositlity. They are being shot at, killed, harrased and made to live in fear. There was a harrowing video of young black child walking in the park with her mom, and started crying out of fear when she saw a white policewoman.
It’s no surprise this novel won the Pulitzer prize in 2017 and several other awards. It’s a brilliantly written novel about the black slave experience that takes you right into their lives.
It’s extremely sad to see that even today in 2020, the life of an African American isn’t smooth sailing in some states in the Land of the Free. Which is why The Underground Railroad becomes such a relevant read to help us understand the trials and tribulations the African Americans endured to get the life they deserve.