The Underground Railroad Summary
The Underground Railroad is, first, set in Georgia, in a vicious plantation where the the desire for escape lingers on everyone’s mind. Every slave is poised to take the the first opportunity that presents itself – where the risk of escaping outweighs the potential severity pf punishment that one will likely suffer if they are caught. Whitehead emphasizes on the hunger for freedom among blacks who hail from various parts of Africa. It is almost accurate to consider that slaves were mostly in pins and needles thinking about what life would be like in the event of freedom. Whitehead explicitly sheds light on the manner in which slaves were acquired; he explains how, one of the slaves, Ajarry, is taken from a village in West Africa and taken into a slave ship. However, our heroine is Cora, Mabel’s daughter and Ajarry’s granddaughter.
Mabel actually escapes the plantation an event that follows a frantic search by her odious owner, Randall. Entrenched in the same desire for freedom as her mother, Cora’s fiery attitude and unwavering determination for freedom sees her fleeing the Georgia plantation where she first saw the light of day. In the company of her friend, Caesar, the two are pursued frantically by Ridgeway, a slave catcher, who is more than determined following his failure to capture Mabel after her escape. Just like any other slave catcher and pro-slavery individual, Ridgeway is focused on destroying the abolitionist network. The railroad that once thought to be primarily for transport ends up being the escape route that Cora uses to gain her freedom. Whitehead culminates the story with Cora in a wagon traveling West after subduing the slavecatcher, Ridgeway.
Whitehead is meticulous in his presentation of characters in the book. He provides a background of Cora to signify the extent to which slavery is entrenched within the society she lives. The hunger and desire for freedom is so engulfing such that a mother, Mabel, leaves her daughter, Cora to have a taste of life as a free woman. There is no logic in such behavior as physical freedom plunges one into mental slavery whereby Mable is, as would be the case for any mother, is plagued with the thought of her daughter rotting in slavery.In the story, Whitehead reveals to his readers that Mabel does make an attempt to rescue her daughter, but her efforts are futile. She, unfortunately, dies from a snake bit while on her way to Cora.
The sudden shift in focus from Mabel presents the reality of slaves who had to juggle the life-or-death stakes associated with their inferior status. It might seem naïve that for slaves, acquiring freedom meant overlooking any other factors that might have caused their premature demise such as the snake bite that Mabel suffers. Nevertheless, the horrors of slavery are engrossing to the extent that life, in such a state, is unbearably domineering thereby demanding an escape. Nevertheless, Cora’s fierce attempt to escape, although half-successful in some part, mirrors the innate drive to pursue freedom, a highly sought commodity among slaves.
The novel echoes issues of racial tension, devaluation of human life, the concept of white supremacy, and consequently, black inferiority. The book is explicit in its approach of how whites use extreme measures to impose control upon a weak and disadvantaged African American community. To the readers’ expectation, there is little, if any, focus on hope, fear, enthusiasm, at least something that could elicit a raw human emotion. Whitehead is intentional in his writing whereby he projects a lax interlocking networking of white and black activists driven by the passion to free blacks from slavery. At the time, slavery was a household name among African Americans. The railroad is presented metaphorically as a channel to ferry blacks who have now changed status from slaves to fugitives. However, a bit more focus on the deeper role of the railroad is recommended.
There are various elements in the book which Whitehead gets right. He projects the institution of slavery for what it was at the time. The experiences of Cora alongside other characters are shoving the impact of slavery on blacks. Whitehead re-imagines the Underground Railroad as an actual transport system which serves, in part, as an escape route for the slaves. He does well to capture the history of America, which was once a slave nation. One other thing that gets Whitehead a thumbs up is the interlocking networking of blacks and whites in their pursuit to free those in bondage. At least, that presents an ounce of humanity within the novel and deviating from the tension and horror of being pursued by slave catchers.
However, for a reader that has been burnt out on narratives focused on slavery, the book might not be their cup of tea. In fact, one might get discouraged straight from the beginning. Furthermore, Whitehead does not do much with the railroad which has a demotivating effect on any reader that is interested to know its implied purpose in the story. While set in a harrowing past, the reader is, to some degree, removed from Cora’s experiences instead of being in her shoes.