My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Underground Railroad is a fictional tale set in Pre-Civil War America and details of a brave young slave name Cora who lives on a cotton plantation in Georgia. It begins with a bit of background on Cora’s pitiful condition, an outcast even amongst the other slaves. Her scant memories of her past, though not very detailed give the reader sufficient insight to understand how the negative impacts of slavery trickle down from generation to generation and get worse. Then comes Caeser, another slave on the plantation, who doesn’t share Cora’s background of generations of slavery. He is here because of another set of circumstances and when he suggests that she accompanies him when he makes an attempt to run away from here and try a shot at freedom, she is taken aback. But after a bit of hesitation, she decides to join him and there starts a tale of adventure, interspersed with terror and hope in equal measure.
Before I talk more about the story and how I liked it, here is a brief background on the title. In early to mid 19th century America, the term The Underground Railroad referred to a highly secret network of safe houses and routes/passages set up by abolitionists used by desperate slaves to escape away from the horrible conditions of mainly the South, where slavery was legal and on rampant, and gain entry to the Northern States and Canada, where slavery was prohibited. It was not underground in the literal sense of the word and wasn’t always a railroad either. In the book, however, the author takes this symbolic term and sets up a physical, secret underground railroad which Cora and Caesar take in order to escape. Although rickety and rudimentary, the railroad does convey the thrill and fear that only clandestine things evoke in our imaginations.
Back to the story, it’s not all lived happily ever after for Cora and Caesar, when they escape Georgia and reach South Carolina, the first in several stops in Cora’s journey to freedom. They have an option to continue Northward, farther away from Georgia, or stay here for a while and see how it works before moving again if it doesn’t suit them. They decide to stay for a while. It is a huge step up for them where they find themselves, for the first time in an environment where they can breathe without asking for someone’s permission and it is not an easy transition at that. But it is still not freedom in its real sense because, after a while, Cora accidentally uncovers a few things that are not so right about the whole set up. So, once again the uproot themselves from their safe and relatively comfortable lives and have to run again. Cora and Caesar are separated, and while Caesar’s fate is unknown until much later in the plot, Cora manages to reach North Carolina again using the Underground Railroad. Her stint here is far from safe and comfortable and soon, she lands in trouble again. I am going to stop discussing the plot here because it would spoil things for the reader. But, the story is always in motion, Cora is always an interesting person to understand and observe.
What I liked the most about the book is the fact that it highlights how the oppressors fear the very people they oppress and go to extreme lengths to stay in control. And it reflects in the psychology of both the rulers and the ruled even today, no matter what political structure we come up with. I am not going to exaggerate and say that it is riveting on every page, it has its own slow and fast patches. Some portions of the book felt a bit unnecessary to me and there were times when I thought, why isn’t this book or at least a part of it, narrated in the first person by Cora? But, even if it starts to feel a bit dull, rest assured that a twist is probably around the corner, just as you turn the page. The good part is that it gives an insight into lives and thought processes of all the sections of the early 19th century American society, and not just the slaves and slave owners. If Pre-Civil War historical fiction is your thing, I would say do give it a try! 🙂