“A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in the universality.”
I picked up Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad after searching my local library database for new literature about the Underground Railroad. This book was recently featured in Oprah’s Book Club and won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. The author took a difficult topic and put it in an easy format for reading. He uses different perspectives and situations to address major issues of slavery that most authors are afraid to write down or mention. This book does not hide the cruelty, but it doesn’t feel like a vicious rant either. His writing asks readers to think about the past and how it is narrated.
Cora is a slave that was abandoned by her mother at a young age on the plantation. Her mother managed to escape and remain free which was a huge feat in the early days. A fellow slave approaches Cora about escaping with the assistance of the Underground Railroad. After intervening for another slave being beaten, she finally decides to escape with Cesar. She ends up killing a white man during the escape which raises the stakes for their capture. They are assisted by the Underground Railroad that according to Whitehead truly exists as an underground network of railway and old train cars that come along intermittently with no set destination. They settle in South Carolina for a while where Cora starts to feel safe. She has a job working at the Museum of Natural Wonders in their live history displays. This part of the book bothered me more than I care to admit. She is put on display as a slave in sections such as Typical Day on the Plantation and Life on the Slave Ship. In addition to this work she is taken to a doctor and realizes they are sterilizing patients and injecting some with syphilis for “research purposes.” They are discovered in South Carolina and must move forward, but Cora is separated and fears Cesar is dead. She is then held in an attic in North Carolina for an extended period before being caught. North Carolina features a barrage of death with the town square holding a hanging each week of a slave or those that helped them. The streets are lined with hanging bodies. This is the first novel I’ve read that mentions bodies hanging along the road. This detail just added to my perspective of the time. I can only see what I have learned from the past, but if you allow your imagination to see past what you know and the possibilities of what actually occurred you find the brutality is more than many could bear. This wasn’t that long ago, and these slave owners and catchers are human just like me. Where was their remorse? Their conscience? I don’t understand how cruelty so deep can form in a person that they no longer see a human being but property. I understand social constraints, but the choice of torture and abuse is a person’s alone. They are responsible.
Cora eventually makes her way to the Valentine Farm which appears as a modern day utopia. *Spoiler Alert* Utopia ends in blood and carnage. I felt like the Valentine scenes were a bit preachy to me, and after the heaviness of the other locations I was just ready for the book to be over. I wouldn’t rate this book on a level of Pulitzer Prize winning material, but his writing does make you think about injustice and the cruelty of slavery. He wasn’t afraid to include the dark and dirty side of history, but he also adds in a lot of lecturing. I do not like to be told how to think. I know some people may need this as an eye opener, but I just wanted more knowledge on the topic from a fresh perspective. I don’t think I would recommend it for most readers unless they have a true interest in the topic.
“Conflicted. That’s what the feeling of torn fabric inside of you is called.”
I have been (im)patiently waiting for Martha Conway’s next novel and she did not disappoint. I can’t describe the ease with which you become involved with her characters but they truly come to life. She doesn’t miss a single detail and the characters stay “in character” throughout the book as if they exist somewhere out in the world and are just waiting for you to find them. I was watching the Floating Theatre instead of reading about a fictional scene. Her historical fiction breathes life into time periods that are often lacking the feel of experience and authenticity.
The story starts out with an account of the boiler explosions on the Moselle riverboat on the Ohio River. May is a passenger along with her cousin when the boat begins to sink. She is quick to react and saves the life of a small child that will haunt her nightmares for the remainder of the book. This act of heroism sets the tone for the reader that she is of strong character and can handle any situation. She begins the search for her cousin who has been taken in by a known abolitionist. Her cousin decides to stay and begin a lecture tour for the cause because she will be well cared for, but this leaves May without any income or a place to stay. The abolitionist agrees to pay May $20 for a ticket home to get rid of her as quickly as possible. May wants to continue her life as a seamstress and looks for work near her cousin and lucks into a job on the Floating Theatre. The only catch is the $20 she is paid to return home will be required to get the boat up and running. May is incapable of telling a lie and must learn in order to utilize the money for another purpose than returning home.
Once she has paid Hugo, the captain of the ship, she begins her new career out on her own. Her duties on the boat go far beyond costume design and she has little experience. As May begins to grow and learn she falls in love with the boat and her fellow passengers. She has always been in her cousin’s shadow and now she can stand on her own. The climax of the book comes when May is blackmailed by the abolitionist to pay back the $20 when she discovers her working on the boat and realizes the money was not spent to return home. May must face the decision to work for the Underground Railroad. She has little knowledge of slavery and doesn’t begin to experience the injustices until the boat begins docking on the free North and slave holding South side of the river. The differences become evident and she is torn within herself about what is right and just. She decides to accept the offer since she sees little choice and the reader is lead into an intense “OMG! What is going to happen? She can’t get caught? Agh!” of excitement. The combination of the threat of discovery and the debut of a new play made it hard to put the book down. Conway does an excellent job of combining romance, action, suspense and a fresh perspective on a troubling topic in American history.
This book is simply put, fantastic. Buy it, read it, read it again, and then you can join me in waiting impatiently for her next book! Release date is June 20, make sure to preorder!
“Although runaways were free once they stepped on free soil, they could still lose their liberty.”
I have been continuing my research on the Underground Railroad and wanted to read some accounts of people who successfully escaped their circumstances into freedom. The Craft couple are one of the most well-known cases of escape. Ellen and William Craft had spent their entire lives as slaves being passed around from family to family. After they were married they began to discuss their mutual concerns for starting a family. They did not want their unborn child to be property that could be sold without their consent so they began to discuss plans for running away. The plan evolved into Ellen dressing as a Southern white gentleman heading to Philadelphia to consult a physician with her husband William assisting her along the way as her slave. They had the forethought to ask for passes for the Christmas holiday so they would not be immediately missed. Their plan was quite advanced and shows their true determination to escape.
The first step was boarding a train to Savannah where a neighbor sat right next to Ellen out of pure coincidence. She was able to fool her neighbor and continued to their second stop: boarding a Steamboat to Charleston. There was yet another scare on this leg of the journey that was thankfully quelled by an army officer who vouched for the couple after sharing a few meals together. Next they boarded a steamboat up the Carolina coast, followed by a train to Richmond, a steamboat up the Potomac, and then another train to Baltimore. At this point they had been traveling for nearly four days. They barely slept, ate, and the worry was constant that they would be found and returned to their owner to face harsh punishment if not death. On the final stop in the journey from Baltimore to Philadelphia the couple is stopped by an official. It was against the rules to allow any person out of Baltimore into Philadelphia without the proper approval/paperwork. They only managed to clear this checkpoint due to Ellen’s apparent illness that she concocted with her disguise. There were so many stops along this journey that I honestly can’t believe they made it. Even with their careful planning this was nothing short of a miracle. Many slaves didn’t even make it past their plantation, let alone several states over. I had heard this story on a Podcast before reading and remember almost biting my nails with worry at each stop. I felt certain they would never make it.
The Crafts became involved with several abolitionist groups and lectured across the country and eventually across England. They organized speaking tours and opened up schools in London and Georgia after the Civil War. No matter how hard or overwhelming the obstacle they never gave up. They believed in the cause of ending slavery and did their part to save and help those they could. There are tens of thousands of slaves that escaped throughout the years, but the Crafts had the courage to speak out at the time even with fear of capture once the Fugitive Slave Law was passed. Their story was printed in newspapers, circulations, and spread from plantation to plantation. They were hunted but still remained free from the moment they set foot in Philadelphia.
I can understand the appeal of this story, especially amongst slaves. They are heroes in their own right as they gave hope to those that needed it most. Slavery is gruesome, and the details of their past and what they bared witness to would shock and horrify even the most hardened person. I have found several other interesting slave escapes and if you are interested in a few then I would urge you to look at this concise list: http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/5-daring-slave-escapes
I utilized 5,000 Miles to Freedom: Ellen and William Craft’s Flight from Slavery by Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fradin for this post. I recommend it to those who want more detail! Stay tuned for a few more posts about all things Underground Railroad. I have thoroughly enjoyed researching this topic, even though it makes you question the cruelty of humanity. There are a lot of lessons to be learned.
“Above all, the Underground Railroad was the opportunity for the bold and adventurous, it had the excitement of piracy, the secrecy of burglary, the daring of insurrection; to the pleasure of relieving the poor negros’ sufferings it added the triumph of snapping one’s fingers at the slave catcher” – Albert Bushnell Hart
Most of what I know about the Underground Railroad I learned in high school. It’s a sad fact that I knew so little that I truly thought Harriet Tubman created the movement, and that it died down well before Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation. This is why I research and why I always allow myself to question and look into everything my mind has a notion to learn about. I never go into something blindly, or believe myself to be an expert without extensive research. I have several book reviews coming up about this particular topic and I craved a deeper understanding. I lucked upon a quick overview at my local library while searching for Uncle Tom’s Cabin (I have yet to read this classic).
Slavery on a large scale began in the 15th century and took hold in the United States as a cheap form of labor for the plantation movement. The first abolitionist society was organized in 1775 before America became independent. In 1807, a law was passed prohibiting the import of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean causing the current slave values to increase. By 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law was passed making the ease of capturing slaves detrimental to the freedom movement. This law allowed for easy capture of any fugitive on the word of the slave catcher without any factual evidence or proof. The fact that this law was allowed to pass in the first place shows the country was deeply rooted in the slavery movement, and that their lives were worth only the price a slave owner was willing to pay. A Southerner could walk past a freed slave on the street and claim they were a long lost runaway and they would be captured and returned to their “owner.” This goes well beyond a constitutional injustice, but slaves were still seen as property instead of people. Changes began to take place after the release of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. More volunteers, supplies, and money were gathered for the Underground Railroad and it gained respectability. The Underground Railroad by Shaaron Cosner gives an excellent overview of several key players in the movement, along with visuals including maps and actual photographs from the time period.
While Harriet Tubman did not create the movement of the Underground Railroad, she is dubbed the “Moses of her people” for her contributions. She, along with several other runaway slaves later joined the Underground Railroad risking their own freedom to save others. They stood up for what they believed in and most chose a peaceful approach. Many supporters faced financial ruin from fines and court fees associated with helping, and others used their money to purchase freedom for slaves. The sacrifices made by the Railroad workers were vast, but they continued to give of their time, money, and freedom until 1863 when Lincoln gave his famous Emancipation Proclamation which eventually led to the end of slavery.
I have many books on my Underground Railroad adventure, but I would love suggestions from readers that have read about this topic before. I am particularly interested in life after runaways obtained freedom. I want to know more about the social and economic difficulties they must have faced after risking their lives for freedom. I look forward to your suggestions and stay tuned for more Underground Railroad updates!