The Underground Railroad is an allegorical story that mixes the surreal with the real to create a powerful novel that highlights the struggles of the black people against slavery, against fear, against dehumanization.
Cora is a determined enslaved young woman on a plantation in Georgia, in the 1880s. She attempts to escape slavery using the underground railroad that transports fugitive slaves to freedom. Cora, as all fugitives before and after her, is transported in the darkness of the underground railroad, and from one station to the next. There is no final destination, no certainty, no safety, no promise to freedom.
“The problem is that one destination may be more to your liking than another. Stations are discovered, lines discontinued. You won’t know what waits above until you pull in.”
As Cora travels through tunnels from place to place, we travel with her. We see all the horrible things, the grotesque brutality, and the atrocities committed against black slaves. The commodification of human beings, the effort to control the black population growth with forced sterilization of females and infection of males with syphilis – a reference to North Carolina’s eugenics program and the notorious Tuskegee experiments, almost a century later.
“Every state is different …… Each one a state of possibility, with its own customs and way of doing things. Moving through them, you’ll see the breadth of the country before you reach your final stop.”
Cora finally arrives in the black community in Valentine’s farm, a place of refuge, a safe “pocket of blackness” in a hostile white world. But safety is an illusion. The farm is a utopia, a delusion. It does not last. It’s only a brief distraction from ruthless mechanisms of the world. At the end, each person is “on their own, as they ever had been.”
This is a book that makes you think about what humans being are capable of. It is not just a book about slavery, but about all kinds of oppression. It is a book about American history and about race. It is upsetting and intense, full of a mixture of despair and hope.