I am a volunteer at the local library bookstore. It is a second-hand bookshop, and it is very rarely I come home after my shift without a book! Last week I bought a hardcover copy of The Underground Railroad in mint condition for $5! I was not going to read it immediately, but when it won the Pulitzer for fiction on Monday, I had to start reading it! 😀
Cora is the principal protagonist in The Underground Railroad. The story takes place in the early 1800s, and Cora is a slave on a cotton farm in Georgia. So, as you can imagine, this novel portrays the harsh realities of lives of slaves in the dark days of American history.
When Ceasar, a fellow slave approaches Cora with a plan to escape the farm with the help of The Underground Railroad, Cora hesitates at first. But when Cora’s attempt to save a child slave from punishment causes her humiliation, indignity, and fear, unable to withstand it anymore Cora agrees to Ceasar’s plan.
Mabel, Cora’s mother had fled the farm without getting caught when Cora was young. It could have been why Ceasar wanted Cora to come with him – to bring them luck. But when the duo takes the terrific risk and escape, the notorious slave catcher in the area, Ridgeway who failed to catch Mabel becomes determined to hunt them and bring them back to “their rightful owner.” So I was awed by the courage Cora showed throughout the story as they headed North, despite Ridgeway’s relentless efforts to catch them.
One thing I really love about this novel is the historical aspect of it. Whilst The Underground Railroad is a work of fiction, most of the incidents have been inspired by true events. Thus, in each of Cora’s stops in her journey to North, we see the evils Africans had to undergo, which came in many forms other than slavery. I think I was most scared for Cora’s life when she was in South Carolina, “a city that initially seems like a haven” with its ‘promises’ for Africans. I don’t want to give away the plot, but that chapter was unsettling, and it reminded me of Stepford in The Stepford Wives.
The other thing what made The Underground Railroad a remarkable reading experience for me is its characters – especially the abolitionists and sympathizers. Some of them were driven by altruistic reasons because they recognized the inhumanity of slavery, whilst others were driven by their religious beliefs. According to historian James Stewart, religious abolitionists believed “All people were equal in God’s sight; the souls of black folks were as valuable as those of whites; for one of God’s children to enslave another was a violation of the Higher Law, even if it was sanctioned by the Constitution.” But whatever the reasons that led them to become active abolitionists, The Underground Railroad resulted in the emancipation of thousands of slaves. Knowing the vicious fate the abolitionists who got caught faced – whether they were White of Black – made me revere them all the more. These private citizens who acted on their conscience against the oppression of Africans show us the finest version of humanity, and I really admire The Underground Railroad for that.