When one thinks about the Underground Railroad, images of runaway slaves and Harriet Tubman leading them to freedom are sure to come to mind. Many of the travelers and conductors on this dangerous path to a possibility of freedom will forever remain unnamed. However, author Colson Whitehead manages to give life to these extraordinary individuals in the form of his historically fiction novel The Underground Railroad.
Cora, the runaway slave the story is centered on, may be fictional, but her plight is very real. The Underground Railroad was the name of the secret network of safe houses and routes to freedom for slaves fleeing the plantation south. A difficult and dangerous journey to freedom, the number of slaves that attempted the almost impossible feat of making it to the north, will probably never be known. Many runaways were caught and sent back to their masters to face harsh and inhumane consequences for running away. Following the establishment of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, it was lawful for slave owners to retrieve their “property” from the north and return them to bondage. Furthermore, anyone caught assisting runaways were subjected to being fined and/or imprisoned.
Whitehead’s storytelling is compelling from beginning to the end. It is difficult to put this book down once you start. Furthermore, he forces the reader to acknowledge the lives of so many unknown slaves who made the journey, whether they were successful or not. It is hard not to feel a connection to the characters and to feel invested in their journey.
Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. New York: Doubleday, 2016.