When you sow, sometimes you may be sowing your death instead of your life. That was the saddest truth about the American slave era. It was perhaps the darkest period in a country which thankfully outlawed slavery later and made rapid progressions towards prosperity. My first read of the year 2017 was a story woven around the very heart of these darkest years.
Cora is a teenage slave in a tyrannical cotton plantation in Georgia when she decides to run away with a friend in pursuit of the seemingly illusory free life. Her inspiration is her mother Mabel who had also managed to run away from the farm when Cora was still a child. The secret underground railroad is their means of escape. She manages to evade the slave catchers for a while in South Carolina, even landing a couple of jobs there. But fate has a cruel way of catching up and when it does, Cora has to flee using the underground railroad. A kind white family helps shelter her in the attic of their home in North Carolina before she is discovered again. The harrowed girl escapes from her captors in Tennessee and ends up in a farm in Indiana where she begins to find meaning in life before things go astray again. The underground railroad is once again her solace as she tries to finds her way to the North.
Colson Whitehead uses an interesting narrative to pen Cora’s story. The images of slavery are arresting and thought provoking. He captures the extreme cruelty the southern states displayed towards the slaves. Like shelters that remain steadfast in every thunderstorm, Cora discovers many people in her escapade each of whom contributes to the development of her post-teen, perennial runaway character. However, the hunted is always on the run and that’s what Cora finds as she traverses one southern state after another, her mind numb, her body battered but her determination unwavering. I liked the concept of the underground railroad as a mirage – the railroad is the perfect means to achieve the end of being free in a land where the colored was increasingly trapped in the vortex of slavery in the 19th century. But the mirage only lasts for a while before the harsh reality of the life of a runaway sets in. Until the next underground railroad.
The prose is strong as it should be when such a daring stunt is portrayed. It’s haunting at times and that adds to all the drama. The angst in the writing is unmistakable – perhaps the author’s own colored upbringing and his understanding of what happened to his progenitors was fodder for this. The only drawback I found is the juggling between past and present – it is difficult to comprehend this in some sections and could have been made clearer.
Our knowledge of American history will not be complete until we learn about slavery and the effects it had on the minds of the colored people. The white man’s one-upmanship was certainly an abomination. The tale of Cora and the struggles of the colored is informative even as the daredevilry is entertaining. I’m giving 4/5 for Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad’.