The Underground Railroad is a fantastic, often gut-wrenching story that weaves some of the darkest parts of American history, with a smattering of the author’s imagination. Colson Whitehead started this book with the thought: what if the underground railroad had not just been a network of safe houses and secret places for slaves to hide out along a northern route to the free states, but also operated along an actual underground railroad system?
Cora is a fifteen- year-old slave on a Georgia plantation. In the beginning of the book, you learn her family history- her grandmother, Ajarry, was kidnapped in Africa and became a part of the slave trade across the Atlantic ocean. Cora’s mother Mabel, was the only child of Ajarry’s who survived to adulthood.
When Cora was eleven years old, Mabel ran away. Even though an exhaustive search was done across state lines by slave catchers, she was never found. Throughout the book, Cora reflects on her mother’s abandonment and as Cora is put through horrific trials of life and death in her fight for freedom, she feels nothing but hatred for the woman who left her behind.
Cora is first approached by a fellow slave named Caesar, with a plan of escape. At first Cora refuses, but shortly afterward is subjected to a horrible punishment and she decides she’s ready to risk flight. Cora and Caesar find a “station” and a conductor and get as far as South Carolina. They find some luck at a progressive medical center, and are given housing, education, and medical attention. However, after some time, the real, sinister nature of the medical center is revealed and Cora is forced to flee.
At the same time, there is a slave catcher by the name of Ridgeway that is relentlessly pursuing Cora. Her mother Mabel has forever eluded Ridgeway, and his rage over that is directed at Cora and he will stop at nothing until he finds her and returns her to the plantation in Georgia she escaped from.
Once again, Cora finds a trapdoor which leads down to the railroad system and takes another rickety train northward. In North Carolina, Cora is forced to spend many months hidden in the attic of a family that takes her in. Cora falls ill at one point and they are forced to bring her downstairs to nurse her back to health. That is when the housekeeper turns in the family for hiding a runaway, and Ridgeway catches up with Cora.
There is one mystery solved by the end of the book: Cora always marveled at how her mother escaped, and just left her young daughter to fend for herself. Mabel’s story is explained in a haunting conclusion that completely changes the reader’s feelings about her.
The Underground Railroad immediately grabs your attention and you find yourself immersed in the world of 19th-century America that Colson has recreated. The bits of Colson’s imagination that are sprinkled throughout the book are so in tune with true history that they mesh perfectly into the story. It is often graphic without being gory- with just a few words, he can paint a horrific picture that leaves you heartsick. The Underground Railroad is both a haunting history of pre-Civil War United States, and one woman’s courageous journey to freedom. Cora is determined and incredibly brave, a true heroine that the reader will root for from the beginning.