Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” is a chilling story of slavery, focused on Cora and her escape from the Randall plantation in Georgia. The story begins with Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry, kidnapped from a village in Ouidah, and sold over and over again until she found herself in Georgia at the Randall plantation. At the Randall plantation Ajarry co-opted a small plot of land where she planted vegetables. Ajarry died in the cotton fields. Cora’s mother, Mabel, the only survivor of Ajarry’s five children, continued the plot, as did Cora later.
Mabel disappears in an escape from the Randall plantation when Cora is 11 years old and never returns to the plantation. She is hunted by slave patroller, Ridgeway, who never finds her and his failure haunts him. The slaves living on the plantation have their own politics and system and Cora is shunned and abused after her mother escapes. Cora never forgives her mother for failing to take her along.
Cora lived on the northern plot of the Randall plantation, which was run by James Randall. The south part of the plantation was run by Terrence Randall. Terrence periodically visited the northern part of the plantation where he was known to be much crueler than James. When James dies and Terrance takes over the entire plantation, Terrance meets Cora and “claims” her as his own. It is then that Cora considers an escape along with her friend Caesar, who is educated and has contacts in the Underground Railroad.
Cora and Caesar make a successful escape, taking advantage of the literal and magical Underground Railroad, hidden in barns, houses and businesses, assisted by sympathetic whites, who in some instances pay for their assistance with their lives. Ridgeway is hired to find them and accepts his assignment with relish. Along the way, Cora kills a white boy thereby increasing the importance of her recapture.
Caesar and Cora end up initially in South Carolina, each living in a dormitory, working in jobs provided for them and Cora receives reading lessons. She had a bed and food and life had never seemed so good. But things were not as they seemed. The stores where she could shop charged 2-3 times more than the stores where whites shopped and the medical care available recommended sterilization and engaged in experimentation on the former slaves. Ultimately, Cora is required to escape Ridgeway, who follows her to South Carolina, then North Carolina and Tennessee.
Each time Cora moves, it is through the Underground Railroad. And each time, the people who help her are made to pay a price for their assistance. When Cora finds herself on a farm in Indiana with other slaves, the politics of the farm and her history create divisions and unanticipated problems. Throughout the novel she never stops running.
The story is distressing and Colson’s writing brings each act of violence and cruelty to life, where people were thought of and treated as property. Cora’s story, her relationships and her observations remind us of the horror of slavery and that phase of American history and hopefully teach us that every person, whether similar or different, is to be treated as we would wish to be treated. A copy of this must read novel can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11213344__Sthe%20underground%20railroad__P0%2C3__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold