As any student of US history would know, there was not an actual “underground railroad” where slaves could ride a train and escape to the north or to the west where they could be free. Rather the term was used for men and women, black and white who risked their lives and developed an “underground” network where fleeing Blacks could be hidden and sheltered as they sought to be free of slavery and oppression that existed in this country.
Colson Whitehead, the author of this book turns this metaphor into an actual train which would have the potential to ferry people to freedom. However, the very clear message of this book is that there was essentially no pathway to freedom in our country during this shameful period of US history. We see not only for slavery in the cotton fields and other areas of hard labor but also domestic slavery in the most “genteel” homes. We are reminded of the historical truth of the “breeding” of slaves, since children who grew into adult slaves had monetary value to their “owners.” There can be no denial of the brutal treatment of black slaves who were beaten and raped at will. The concept of so-called “ownership” of another person is explored at length in this book as we are introduced to the “slave catchers”. These are people who chase and trace slaves and bring them back to their “owners” for a large reward (often plus “expenses”). These bounty hunters have no border restrictions and were free to do their work in any part of the United States. As we were reminded of in the outstanding book and movie “12 Years a Slave” there were no safe zones in any part of the United States even in New York and in New England. Perhaps there were some so-called “black freemen” in some states but in additional to prejudice and discrimination which they faced, there was always the possibility of being kidnapped and sold into slavery.
As is often the case with a great novel, the author tells his or her story through the eyes of one or more characters. There were several people in the book who gave this reader the opportunity to understand their experiences. Most meaningful to me was to inhabit Cora, a young black girl who eventually “rode the railroad” and her mother Mabel, who abandoned Cora at a young age and made her attempted run for freedom.
Then there is the question of what would I do if I lived in that period and have the opportunity to hide a fleeing slave or perhaps a persecuted Jew in Nazi Germany, and in both cases knowing that if I were discovered it would mean death to me and my family. The author allows us to get some insight into such people who chose to be part of the “underground railroad”.