'The Underground Railroad': Spellbinding tale of escape to freedom


"The Underground Railroad" is a spellbinding new novel by Colson Whitehead about a young girl named Cora enslaved in the deep South. It begins by telling her grandmother Ajarry's story. Ajarry was taken from her homeland in Africa and sold into bondage. The novel goes on to tell of her heart-breaking life and death on a cotton plantation. Ajarry's plight says it all for what Cora is born into.

Whitehead tells the story of Cora and other characters who figure closely in her adventure with an effective matter-of-fact language that delivers the picture soundly. The picture is often one of extreme cruelty and brutality from plantation owners, slave hunters, and ordinary townsfolk. A clear point in this novel is that those who visit enslavement and barbaric treatment on others become enslaved and brutalized themselves through their own hatred. This condition affects the laws and cultures of several states Cora eventually travels through, pursued by relentless slave hunter, Ridgeway.

Cora's story begins when she is 10 years old and has been abandoned by her mother, who suddenly disappears one night to escape North. Cora has nothing but hatred for her because of her escape so when a slave boy, Caesar, who is new to the plantation later asks her to join him in the same plan of action she at first refuses. It is plainly outlined just how terribly dangerous such a course of action would be and Cora is no fool. But she is also a courageous and fearsome warrior. When her precious patch of garden is threatened by a much older and much bigger man, Blake, who builds his dog house there, the standoff does not last long and Cora is the victor. Likewise, when Cora protects a child who is beaten mercilessly with a cane by their horrendously vicious slave owner, Terrance Randall, she is beaten with the cane and then lashed close to death. It is after this episode, from which she survives, that she agrees to accompany Caesar on their attempt to escape the futility of planation life in bondage. Caesar has made contact with the underground railroad, an underground, secret system with "stations" on or near the homes of ordinary people who have taken on the mission of their abolitionist beliefs.

Cora's adventure is full of surprises and setbacks and heart-stopping turnarounds. Her journey north is not without extreme danger, hardship, and transformations in mind and spirit. The journey is full of contrasts in each state of slavery and in bordering states harboring runaways from the underground railroad. The novel is complete in addressing every issue affecting enslaved people and their rise to freedom.

Colin Harrington is the events manager at The Bookstore and Get Lit Wine Bar in Lenox. Colin welcomes reader comments at charrington686@gmail.com

Read it

"The Underground Railroad"

By Colson Whitehead

The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

306 pages


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