The Underground Railroad


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I listened to the audio and read the eBook.  All references are based on the eBook.  After a slow start I was able to move through the book quickly, largely due to the audio.  Whether reading or listening though, I often found my mind wandering.  I felt like the style was a little dry.

Historical fiction is my favorite genre but this novel was hugely disappointing.  While I know that not everything is true in a historical fiction novel, I expect that the main ideas will be true, or at least plausible.  There could have been a slave named Cora.  Slaves were treated poorly by their owners.  The historical bits about the doctor at the hospital encouraging colored women to undergo sterilization (South Carolina - Loc 1525) or the men being exposed to syphilis (South Carolina - Loc 1641) reminded me of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  But I distinctly remember learning about the underground railroad in elementary school and the teacher making it very clear that it wasn't an actual train.  So for Mr. Whitehead to blatantly write that an actual train ran literally underground from South Carolina to Indiana and New York is ludicrous.  It's like Diana Gabaldon writing that Jaime Fraser pulled out a light saber at the battle of Culloden!

The Freedom Trail also seemed greatly exagerated.  In the book it is miles of road with dead bodies hanging along the sides of the road. (Indiana - Loc 3465)  According to Wikipedia there is no mention of dead bodies and the trail didn't begin until 1951.

15% through the book I was finding it hard to follow.  It felt like someone tried to reverse engineer a history book into an entertaining novel.  It was dry and heavy on factual insertions.  I kept having to reread parts because my mind would wander due to lack of engagement.  I was often unclear as to why a character was being punished.  I didn't know if it was due to my poor concentration or was the author purposely keeping it vague to impress a subtle point about the reality of the randomness of punishments.  By 20% there was more action so it got a bit more exciting.  Around 60% through the book we start to get chapters about people who we already know to be dead.  The sequencing seemed a little off.  Time seemed to get much jumpier from this point than it had been previously.

On a scale of 1 - 5 (5 being a lot of examples/instances):

Sex: 4

Religion: 3

Gruesome: 4

Suspense: 1

Morality: 3

Traditional: 2

Sex - several references to owners taking advantage of slave women led me to rate this higher due to not just frequency but forcefulness and brutality
  • "Because of her tender age, her captors did not immediately force their urges upon her, but eventually some of the more seasoned mates dragged her from the hold six weeks into the passage." (Ajarry - Loc 65)
  • "When he pinched her breasts to see if she was in flower,..." (Ajarry - Loc 90)
  • "White men and brown men had used the women's bodies violently,..." (Georgia - Loc 223)
  • "Not soon after Blake made his intentions known, Cora woke one morning to the violation." (Georgia - Loc 256)
  • "He violated the bonds of affection, sometimes visiting slaves on their wedding night to show the husband the proper way to discharge his marital duty." (Georgia - Loc 423)
  • "He pulled her dress over her head and took off his trousers and shirt.  Cora kissed him and ran her hands over the territory of his body.  When he spread her legs she was wet and he slid inside her, saying her name as no one had ever said it and as no one ever would, sugary and tender." (The North - Loc 4016)

Religion - for almost every instance of preaching religion there are equal counters as to why the characters don't believe in a deity.

Gruesome - instances seem exceptionally gruesome due to the premise of the horrific nature of the crimes 
  • "...keeled over in the rows from a knot in her brain, blood pouring from her nose and white froth covering her lips." (Ajarry - Loc 123)
  • "She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows.  Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o'-nine-tails.  Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres.  Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to stop theft.  She had seen boys and girls younger than this beaten and had done nothing." (Georgia - Loc 477)
  • "Titania never spoke...because her tongue had been hacked out by a previous owner." (Georgia - Loc. 490)
  • "Homer crouched next to his boss.  His hand covered in blood from the back of Ridgeway's head.  The big bone in the man's thigh stuck out of his trousers and his other leg bent in a gruesome arrangement." (The North - Loc 3984)

Suspense - even though there were situations that required some manipulation and maneuvering on the part of the characters, there was really nothing that was so suspenseful that I wanted to keep reading until it was resolved.  I wondered if Cora would find her mom on her journey but it wasn't a strong enough compulsion to keep reading.  There were no hints dropped that it might happen.

Morality - on the one side you've got people who own other humans and think it's okay to abuse them, on the other side you've got people who recognize that is wrong and are willing to risk their livelihood and life to fix it so it sort of balances out on the morality scale

Traditional - when I think of traditional I imagine a life where two people (a man and a woman) fall in love, get married, have children (in that order).  There is none of that in this book.  There are no alternative lifestyles.  But there is definitely "hanky-panky" - sleeping around or engaging in sex before marriage intentionally (as opposed to abusively).  One could argue that if the slave had been free to choose a marital partner maybe they would have followed a more traditional route - regardless, that is not how the story is written.  Furthermore, a mother abandons her young child.

The writing style was a bit odd in parts - like calling Ajarry "Cora's grandmother" when we didn't know Cora yet.  Or the passage, "New York was the start of a wild time.  Ridgeway worked retrieval, heading north when constables sent word they'd captured a runaway from Virginia or North Carolina.  New York became a frequent destination, and after exploring new aspects of his character, Ridgeway picked up stakes.  The fugitive trade back home was straightforward.  Knocking heads.  Up north, the gargantuan metropolis, the liberrty movement, and the ingenuity of the colored community all converged to protray the true scale of the hunt."  (Ridgeway - Loc 1052).  Decoding this style takes a lot of effort.  A couple of paragraphs before, he threw up in DC so it seemed like he didn't like NYC and picked up the stakes to go home...but nope, he stayed in NYC.

Because of today's societal norms where people get offended if you just blink at them one too many times I feel like I need to put a disclaimer on my review.  I think there are very few people alive today that truly know what it was to be a slave.  So when I ask a question or make a comparison to modern day types of enslavement, I have no intention of belittling the experience of those who actually experienced it.  I think I am inline with the author when he wrote, "Cotton had made [Mr. Anderson] a slave too." (South Carolina - Loc 1450)  The word slave can be used in a variety of degrees.  I know that there are still many situations where discrimination occurs solely based on one's skin color.  But I don't think that EVERY situation is racially motivated.  If a person of color goes into a car dealership and starts breaking car windows with a bat and won't stop then the reason the police are called and taze him or shoot him or whatever is needed to get him to stop is not because of his color but because of his actions.  Too many times on the cell phone videos that get distributed via nightly news we don't see the preceeding action and there is a rush to judgement based on what the officer did to the person withouth truly knowing what the person did before the officer arrived on scene or before the camera started filming.

Discussion Questions

"To escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principles of your existence: impossible." (Ajarry - Loc 131)  People did escape, slavery did end, but have the fundamental principles of people's existence changed?  If not, what keeps people from changing today?

We can all become enslaved to our routine, kids-work-dinner-kids-bed.  What do you do when you own yourself? (Georgia - Loc 165)

Ajarry's land was "three yards square".  (Georgia - Loc 189)  What would you do with this amount of land, "All three square yards of it."? (Georgia - Loc 234) Approximately 5 ft x 5 ft

What did Cora hope to gain by destroying the dog house? (Georgia - Loc 272)

"One year since Connelly ordered her to take a husband.  Two years since Pot and his friends had seasoned her.  ...  Six years since her mother left."  (Georgia - Loc 342)  What markers to you use to track time?

"Free negroes who supplemented their living catching runaways..." (Georgia - Loc. 563)  What does this indicate about the difficulties even "free" negroes experienced?

Are there still differences between northerners and southerners?  Who has the more negative impression today?

"New York city was a factory of antislavery sentiment.  The courts had to sign off before Ridgeway was permitted to take his charges south.  Abolitionist lawyers erected barricades of paperwork, every week a new stratagem.  New York was a Free State, they argued, and any colored person became magically free once they stepped over the border.  They exploited understandable discrepancies between the bulletins and the individual in the courtroom..." (Ridgeway - Loc 1067)  "The need for trade schools, colored medical schools.  For a voice in Congress, if not a representative then a strong alliance with liberal-minded whites.  How to undo slavery's injury to the mental faculties - so many freed men continued to be enslaved by the horrors they'd endured."  (Indiana - Loc 3664)  How is this like today's immigration battle?  Different?

"Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor - if you can keep it, it is yours.  Your property, slave or continent.  The American imperative." (Ridgeway - Loc 1085)  Does this idea still apply today?

"Those were not her thoughts, not at all.  Because to walk around with that in your mind and do nothing was to die."  (South Carolina - Loc 1326) Is this true of all dreams?

"From shopping for Mrs. Anderson, she was horrified that things in their local establishment cost two or three times as much as those in the white stores." (South Carolina - Loc. 1366)  Who ran the colored stores?  At what point in the supply chain did the price hikes occur?

"Cora didn't know what optimistic meant." (South Carolina - Loc. 1446)  Two paragraphs later the narrator uses the word "auspices".  (South Carolina - Loc 1457).  Can a narrator use a word beyond the intelligence of the character of which they speak?

The museum exhibit has several representations that were innacurrate.  The curator "countered that while authenticity was their watchword, the dimensions of the room forced certain concessions." (South Carolina - Loc 1484)  Does this make you question the authenticity of all museums?

After Cora went back to the Anderson's home and saw her replacement at the door, "From that day on, she took a route to the museum that avoided the Anderson home." (South Carolina - Loc 1548)  Why did it bother her so much?

"Mr. Field's types were the only living exhibits." (South Carolina - Loc 1553)  Was this better or worse than slavery?  Better or worse than working for the Anderson's?

"The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs.  But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others." (South Carolina - Loc 1575)  "Stolen bodies working stolen land.  It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood." (South Carolina - Loc 1582)  "This nation shouldn't exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft and cruelty.  Yet here we are." (Indiana - Loc 3808) Can a country founded on imbalance ever achieve a peaceful balance?

Why did Cora give Maisie the evil eye and frighten her at the museum? (South Carolina - Loc 1724)

What would you have done if you were underneath a burning house? (South Carolina - Loc 1791) 

"Carpenter snarled when he said the word, a mangy dog hoarding his bone; nigger.  Stevens never used the word.  He disapproved of racial prejudice.  Indeed, an uneducated Irishman like Carpenter, setteled by society to a life of rummaging graves, had more in common with a negro than a white doctor.  If you considered the matter at length.  He wouldn't say that aloud, of course.  sometimes Stevens wondered if his views weren't quaint, given the temper of the modern world.  The other student uttered the most horrible things about the colored population of Boston, about their smell, their intellectual deficiencies, their primitive drives.  Yet when his classmates put their blades to a colored cadaver, they did more for the cause of colored advancement than the most high-minded abolitionist.  In death the negro became a human being.  Only then was he the white man's equal.  (Stevens - Loc 1856)  Discuss Stevens' views.  Were they ahead of his time?  How would they fit with today's views?

When Cora was talking to Martin in the attic, she had a mocking tone.  "'We're at the mercy of fate.'  'You feel like a slave?' Cora asked.  Ethel hadn't chosen this life, Martin said. 'You were born to it? Like a slave?'"  (North Carolina - Loc 2244) Was her attitude appropriate?

What is the park a metaphor for?  (North Carolina)

How could Cora get so ill after being in seclusion for so long? (North Carolina - Loc 2417)  The food?  Was it intentional?

How did the placement of Ethel, Caesar and Mabel's chapters affect your reading of the book.  (The chapters occurred after we had already known them to be dead.)

"But we have all been branded even if you can't see it, inside if not without--" (Indiana - Loc 3381) What is your brand?

Royal showed Cora a tunnel that they didn't know where it went. (Indiana - Loc 3551)  Why did he think Cora would know?

Discuss: "Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth." (Indiana - Loc 3800)

Discuss: "Men start off good and then the world makes them mean.  The world is mean from the start and gets meaner every day.  It uses you up until you only dream of death." (Mabel - Loc 3882)

What did you think had happened to Mabel?

"Who are you after you finish something this magnificent - in constructing it you have also journeyed through it, to the other side.  On one end there was who you were before you went underground, and on the other end a new person steps out into the light.  The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath, the miracle you made with your sweat and blood.  The secret triumph you keep in your heart." (The North - Loc 4003)  Discuss this passage as a metaphor for life.



Theme Ideas

Serve ginger cake like the runners received from Jockey when they were done racing. (Georgia - Loc 333)
Serve "pumpernickel loaf and slices of ham" (Georgia - Loc 880) like Cora and Caesar ate at Fletcher's - their first food on their way to freedom.
Serve chopped pork covered in dipney sauce, smoky collards, turnips and sweet potato pie like at the Valentine's. (Indiana - Loc 3238)

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