“The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead ★★★

Fictionalized account of one woman’s harrowing journey out of the Deep South via the escape route dubbed “The Underground Railroad”.  This author’s version uses a play on words by portraying the railroad as an actual system of train tracks and tunnels dug underground, each section only traveling a short distance before it would reach another stop, the fugitives departing for a short time, hiding in a location provided to them and then starting up from another station a distance away.  The tunnels would just stop at certain points, then the boxcar would reverse its direction and return to the beginning of the line.

Although the actual Underground Railroad received its name because the different stops along the way were referred to as “stations” and the people directing the fugitives to the next location on the route called themselves “conductors”, for those who don’t know this already, it wasn’t literally an underground railway system.  That would have made things a lot easier if it were true!  In reality, the “railroad” was simply–although not simple in its execution–a series of hidey holes in barns, cellars, attics, wood piles, hidden rooms, tunnels, or just hiding places in the woods granting temporary shelter (and with luck, safety), a little food, and rest for a multitude of terrified and abused runaway slaves, led from place to place by volunteers who also had to live in fear for assisting them.  The route and stops along the way changed frequently and everyone was at the mercy of trusting others to keep everything secret.

Some say there may have been as many as 100,000 slaves who escaped to the northern American states and Canada through this network between the early 1800s and 1850.  It’s absolutely incredible if that is true.

Although this is well researched and covers the topic well, the fantasy element of an actual railroad system was a bit off-putting and caused me some confusion.  I found some parts very interesting and eerie, i.e. a southern town that touted itself as being a place of refuge for escaping slaves, but had an unsettling way of dealing with anyone found harboring them.  It was also sad to hear of medical experiments being done to people without their knowledge (by Northern doctors).

In looking this up for confirmation, I also learned that this type of experimentation occurred at a later point in history as well (from 1932-1972, if you can believe it), once again using black men who were diagnosed with syphilis unbeknownst to them, left untreated, and then just watched by the so-called doctors who wanted to study the progression of the disease.  This, of course, then affected their wives and babies born to them.  People are sick.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuskege…

The main character, Cora Randall, is just a young girl when her mother, Mabel, desperately flees the plantation and their wicked master, leaving her to her own devices and to the abuses that befall young women who are left without protection.  What happens next affects Cora for the remainder of her days, leaving her afraid to trust, to love, and seemingly unable to feel much emotion at all.  Despite her tragic circumstances, it was still hard as a reader to feel connected to Cora because of that emptiness and lack of feeling she displayed.

There were a lot of interesting characters, but we weren’t given enough information about them to delve further into what made them tick.  That was a disappointment.  Really the dominating emotion throughout the book was FEAR.  There was one shining moment where Cora received some gentle care and words from a friend, allowing her to feel a spark of hope for a short time.  The ending also answered some questions for the reader which lingered from the beginning of Cora’s story.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead


The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead
Audio narrated by Bahni Turpin

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