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The Knackered Parents' Book Club reviews The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Happy Easter! Is it too late to say that? Time is flying by and we have now read our 14th book! Well done to everyone for struggling though the exhaustion and finding time to read. Why is it so important? The author Salil Jha said, “You are a reader, and therefore a thinker, an observer, a living soul who wants more out of this human experience.” Through reading we can learn about our past, our present and our potential future. Our latest book, ‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead shines a terrifying spot light on the slave trade in the 1800’s. It prompted many questions for me: How far have we come since then? Why are human beings so cruel to each other and how do we justify acts of sheer inhumanity?


The Underground Railroad’s main protagonist is a woman called Cora. She is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. She decides to escape with a slave called Caesar. We follow her escape as she tries to get to the North with help from the Underground Railroad. The term Underground Railroad began to be used in the early 1830s. Homes and businesses that harboured runaways were known as "stations" or "depots" and were run by "stationmasters." "Conductors" moved the fugitives from one station to the next. In Colson’s novel, the railway takes on a physical form. ‘The stairs led onto a platform. The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either side’. The sheer size and workmanship of the tunnel are an amazement to Cora. She describes it as a ‘marvel’. In creating a physical underground railway, I think that Colson manages to convey a real sense of not only the danger that runaway slaves faced, but of their achievement. Working together they managed to achieve the seemingly impossible.


The novel opens with Cora explaining why she thought leaving the plantation was an impossibility. ‘The first time Caesar approached Cora about running North she said no. This was her grandmother talking.’ The word ‘running’ implies there is a need to escape and her answer of ‘no’ attaches fear to the act of running. We empathise with Cora from the beginning. Colson then goes on to describe what happened to Cora’s grandmother. Ajarry was taken from Africa by Dahomeyan raiders. Her father was murdered when he couldn’t keep up the pace. She was sold in Ouidah with the rest of her people, ‘eighty-eight human souls for sixty crates of rum and gunpowder.’ The juxtaposition of the ‘human souls’ and ‘rum’ and ‘gunpowder’ highlights the inhumanity of her ordeal. She was resold many times before she ended up on the Randall plantation. The concept of a human being as goods to be sold is jarring and upsetting.


Throughout the rest of the chapter the reader learns about Cora’s life on the plantation. The brutal actions of the slave owners are almost glossed over as incidental events that punctuate everyday life, this seems to make them even more shocking. When big Anthony is put to death for trying to escape none of the slaves moved ‘…not even to pinch their noses to keep out the smell of big Anthony’s roasting flesh’. Colson then contrasts this with a description of civility, ‘The Savannah ladies refreshed their drinks from the pitcher’. The word ‘pitcher’ creates images of garden parties and polite society. This juxtaposition made the violence even more horrific for me.


Despite Cora’s fear, she decides to run away. The chapter ends with the line ‘Three weeks later she said yes. This was her mother talking.’ Cora’s mother had run away years previously. A decision was made. The risk of death is better than living with the constant inhumanity of the plantation. I wonder what is it that makes us capable of such cruelty and under the right circumstances is everybody capable of it? It’s certainly clear that in dehumanising the slaves it made it a lot easier to justify what was happening. The white population were taught to think of the slaves as objects without the right to freedom. The cruelty and violence came about when they didn’t recognise their humanity or right even to life. However, it could also have come about from a desire to seem powerful and gain respect. Terrance tortures and kills Anthony because in running away he IS showing humanity and that is a danger Terrance can’t abide. What would happen if he admitted that slaves were people, with the ability to think, hate, hurt, desire and love?


Later on in Cora’s journey she ends up on a farm, staying with a mother and daughter. She watches them embrace, ‘The silent theatre of Sybil and Molly’s love moved her always.’ I found this scene extremely moving. Sybil risked running away when she knew her daughter and herself would be sold and likely separated at auction. The horror of being taken and forced apart from your child is emphasised by their everyday acts of love towards each other in the freedom of the farm.



The Underground Railway is a thought- provoking book, which made me hold my little ones a bit tighter. Slavery still exists today in many forms. We all have a duty to see the humanity in each other.

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