There is probably no one alive who has not heard of the legendary underground railway that was used to help slaves escape from their masters. In this novel, Whitehead has cleverly and realistically created a real hidden underground railroad that runs beneath the ground to help bring slaves to freedom, much like the New York subway system. Various arms are shut down as they are discovered and new ones are built when it is possible and safe to do so. The various lines differ in comfort and style depending on location, but all are fraught with danger.
The book is gripping in its style and in its telling. It was hard to read continuously because the hopelessness, the cruelty and the concomitant fear of the slave is palpable. The arrogance of those in power and the excuses they used to justify their behavior defied reality and yet was made real by the practice of it. I took few notes as I read because putting pen to paper about it made it seem too real, even though, as the author admitted, it was a mixture of fact and fiction; it was very hard to read about Cora’s attempts to find freedom in a world that wanted to continue to keep her in bondage.
When the book begins we learn about Ajarry, a young African woman who has been stolen and shipped to America to work on a Plantation owned by the Randall family. She is the matriarch, the mother of Mabel, her only surviving child, of the five she had birthed. She is grandmother to Cora, Mabel’s only child. Mabel was known for her independence and soon it was obvious that Cora would be known for that as well. Cora has no idea where her mother is since she disappeared from the Randall’s plantation and was never heard from again. She was never caught, although the brutal slave catcher named Arnold Ridgeway has never given up the search. Cora, at 11, becomes an orphan, a young slave at the mercy of the other slaves, who in their dire circumstances, like their masters, are also often cruel and brutal in their treatment of other slaves. The stronger preyed on those weaker. Cora resents her mother for abandoning her to such circumstances.
The book moves back and forth in time exposing Cora’s life with its trials and tribulations and the lives of the characters that she engages with, but most of the details are revealed only to the reader. Cora never discovers the true nature of all of her background or many of the facts about those loved ones that she lost, however, she does learn bits and pieces as her life unravels in the story. Her experiences are the stuff of nightmares and it would be nice if it could be dismissed that way, but it is documented that such barbaric treatment of slaves was commonplace by other freed slaves, free blacks or self-righteous whites. Runaway slaves were turned over like objects, without compunction or concern for what would happen to them, largely for selfish reasons. The masses entertained themselves with the punishment of those who aided and abetted the runaways even as they watched the slaves being captured. It reminded me of the Roman arenas where people cheered as Christians were fed to the lions. Such behavior should never have been tolerated or encouraged, and yet, our history tells us that if what the author wrote did not exactly happen, certainly great similarities do exist between his fantasy and our reality.
Just as I have read many books on the Holocaust and am often surprised by information I learn that I did not know before, this book reveals information that I had never come across before, although I have read many books on slavery, as well. Although it is historic fiction, there is enough information resembling actual history to make the book, not only plausible, but incredibly believable. The hopelessness of the situation for the slaves and the details which are provided by the author, real or imaginary, strike at the heart of man; it is simply not possible to justify the use of people as objects or material possessions; it is not possible to fully wrap one’s mind around the idea that there were plans to extinguish a race or a religion without the resounding objection of multiple voices to quell such behavior. History has proven that when driven by economic need, people seem to do horrific things and perhaps that is where the answer lies. Perhaps we all need to guard against using our financial situation as an excuse for abominable behavior. Financial need does not and should not preclude the needs of humanity or humanitarian behavior.
Although the author admits that he has exaggerated the punishments and torture written about in the book, he also admits that slave masters were very cruel and brutal, treating their slaves as simple possessions, referring to them with the pronoun “it” rather then with he or she; he alludes to the medical treatments that have been forced upon their race, and the medical experiments that have been conducted without their knowledge.
Slavery was indeed a blight upon our history as was what is known as the Trail of Tears and the associated Indian massacres. How to justify and rectify the injustice has been an enigma for decades. There is no easy answer because nothing can change what has already been written in history. We must never forget that we are, indeed, all human and all subject to the same cruelties we inflict on others, if we do not put a stop to it before it begins.