Fleet books 2016
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, an existence made even more hellish by her status as an outcast among her fellow Africans. And she is approaching womanhood, where greater pain and danger awaits. So when Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, Cora takes the momentous decision to accompany him on his escape to the North.
In this razor-sharp novel, the Underground Railroad has assumed a physical form: a dilapidated box – car pulled by a steam locomotive, picking up fugitives wherever it can. Thus begins Cora’s perilous journey, as she is pursued by a ruthless slave-catcher named Ridgeway, obsessed both with Cora and her mother, who eluded him years before.
The Underground Railroad is the story of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage, and a shatteringly powerful meditation on history and the unfulfilled promises of the present day.
I bought this book a while back and placed it on my shelf where it remained. I knew I wanted to read it but feared the subject matter I think… Anyway a buddy read arranged over on Instagram with Claire at always need more books provided the much needed prompt required for me to pick this book up.
Hard to articulate my fears, but safe to say none of them were realised. I found this an engaging read, to say I enjoyed it is wrong, the subject matter is brutal, shameful and sad but the writing was accessible, informative and very readable.
Cora was born into slavery, her mum fled when Cora was a child, leaving Cora alone on the plantation. Something Cora cannot forgive her mother for despite understanding her bid for freedom. Recognising her vulnerability as a woman in her position, Cora cautiously takes the opportunity offered by Caesar to escape which they do. Hotly pursued they make the relative sanctuary of the Underground Railroad.
But it soon becomes clear that freedom isn’t simply being off the plantation. With Slave Catchers a plenty, most notably Ridgeway who doggedly pursues Cora seeking retribution for her mother escaping him and fear of death upon being caught. This, coupled with the deceitful actions of some seeming to support and the fear of retribution for those perceived to have helped harbour slaves, means Cora can never be truly free. The book is told from a number of perspectives, with Cora’s journey remaining the common theme, in this way we gain insight into the backstories of several including Ridgeway and some of those working the Railroad.
The book is a work of fiction using the metaphor of The Underground Railroad to represent the network of escape routes which emerged to assist, ‘African – American Slavers to escape to free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionist and allies who were sympathetic to their cause’. (Wikipedia) I have seen criticism of the book saying the writing lacks emotion, this may be true but for me was a positive. This is a story that needs to be told and heard, it is desperately sad. For Cora, who represents so many, seeking freedom while grieving her losses, forced to carry the guilt for the suffering of those who died helping her, because of the colour of her skin. For me the story became sadder as it progressed, I think as it became clearer that Cora couldn’t stop running, the challenge for her to lead a settled life, her aspirations for family and a home.
The strength of this book is simply its readability and it’s capacity to tell this story in a way that can be widely accessed. I finished feeling that I had gained something in addition to knowledge from the reading experience. I want to recommend it to everyone as essential reading and believe it should be taught in schools. I could go on… I won’t!