Spoiler Alert: Plot Poem Ahead
Caesar asks Cora to run,
But the answer is no.
Plantation 'holiday' makes a mess;
Whipped, owned, and now also claimed,
The next time Caesar asks, Cora says yes.
From Randall they run, at first a pair;
But Cora's friend Lovey makes three.
Hog hunters catch one, and Lovey is done.
To Fletcher and Lumbly, the railroad crew
They make it, but now they are only two.
Cora, now Bessie; Caesar now Christian.
Workers, not slaves, still government-owned.
Trains heading north, but none are taken.
Slave catcher Ridgeway, freedom undone,
Fire. Murder. And then there was one.
Martin and Ethel are agents unwilling;
The North Carolina stop is now closed.
Cora is free, but trapped in the attic;
Fridays for lynching, from the railroad, naught.
Then Fiona squeals, and Cora is caught.
With Ridgeway in chains, on the way 'home',
But first to Missouri for one more prize.
Cora tries to flee again and again,
But chained she remains, till Royal and Red.
Colored men with guns, a striking sight,
They flee with Cora into the night.
Valentine farm, are we safe at last?
Stay, and contribute, run no more.
Philosophers fight over what plan is best,
Should we stay as we are, or head further west?
Cora is happy, with Royal, in love.
Starting to heal, things undreamed of.
Shots in the back, peace broken once more,
Ridgeway returns to even the score.
Giddily evil, he looks to uncover
The railroad; its secrets are almost discovered.
But Cora is crafty, and not to be owned,
Downstairs they tumble, now Ridgeway's dethroned.
Alone, exhausted, broken, bereft;
Cora's finally free, but with nothing left.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
Dear blob readers,
I decided to summarize the plot with a poem in a feeble attempt to match the lyrical beauty of this work. I am blobbing on this book both by popular request and because it was stunning. If you have not read it, I STRONGLY recommend it. I cannot promise I will not spoil anything in the later parts of this blob, but it is still 300% worth reading. So if you only grab one book this year, make it this one. My thoughts:
Kinds of weather
While horrific, the plantation descriptions were eerily beautiful. Not that the place itself was something lovely, but that Whitehead managed to eloquently depict the inhumanity and banality in equal measure.
Cora's mother and Ava grew up on the plantation at the same time. They were treated to the same Randall hospitality, the travesties so routine and familiar that they were a kind of weather, and the ones so imaginative in their monstrousness that the mind refused to accommodate them.Bogey men and other monsters
Ridgeway was a terrifying character, both creepily used to keep order among slaves and lauded by owners for his hunting prowess. This was a telling passage:
The slave mothers said, 'Mind yourself or Mister Ridgeway will come for you.'Railroad is real
The slave masters said, Send for Ridgeway.
OK. So like I said, spoilers. #sorrynotsorry - So I picked this book up for three main reasons:
(1) It had a red cover. I know, that sounds lame, but it's my favorite color, so it's the first thing I see.
(2) I knew it was highly recommended, and my friend Dennis had mentioned it.
(3) I wanted to read something written in the last few years, and I heard this had a historical fiction fantasy vibe going on.
So it turns out that the only real 'fantastical' aspect is that the Underground Railroad is, in fact, an Underground Railroad. Which is revolutionary and wonderful, and very well done! But admittedly, I was expecting more fantasy. The happy accident, though, was that this book, fiction, but real to the bone, was jam-packed with brilliance, and more meaningful than any fantasy I've ever read.
I thought about a lot of things from my life today as I read, and this was one of the lines that stood out, since my birthday recently passed:
What did you get for that, for knowing the day you were born into the white man's world? It didn't seem like the thing to remember. More like to forget.Mabel
Watch out. Another spoiler coming. So part of the crux of this story is that Cora's mother ran before she did, when Cora was little. And unlike every other runaway slave from Randall who was caught and brutally murdered, Mabel got away. Cora resents her for leaving without her, and Ridgeway hates the 'one who got away'.
[Ridgeway] hated her mother as much as [Cora] did. That, and the fact they both had eyes in their head, meant they had two things in common.The book is beautifully told from different voices and perspectives, and we spend a great deal of time wondering what happened to Mabel. Did she make it to Canada? Was she somewhere up north? As time goes on, we start to seethe with Cora, and we feel her righteous indignation. How could she leave her behind? What good was freedom if her daughter was still a slave?
It's not until very late in the book, long after Cora has been running and many have died, that we flash back to Mabel. And though it is so simple, and I should have assumed it all along, I was broken when we found out she only got to the nearby swamp. The very night she left, she decides to go back for Cora, and gets bitten by a snake. She was never mean, she was never selfish. She was never free, she was never away. She was eaten by the earth a mile from Randall. She's been dead for decades.
Palimpsest of pain
If you've read my other posts, you know that the history of America and its palimpsest of pain is a topic of much discussion. Here, the author didn't spend a lot of time on comparing injustices, but he eloquently alluded to the theft of the land that pre-dated the theft of the African people:
Stolen bodies working stolen land.Referents and Reverberations
This line, from The Underground Railroad:
- She owned herself for a few hours every week.
- For years they saw each other in full daylight only on Sundays. The rest of the time they spoke or touched or ate in darkness. Predawn darkness and the afterlight of sunset. So looking at each other intently was a Sunday-morning pleasure and Halle examined her as though storing up what he saw in sunlight for the shadow he saw the rest of the week.
- What a world it is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway?
- How to undo slavery's injury to the mental faculties - so many freed men continued to be enslaved by the horrors they'd endured.
- A plantation was a plantation; one might think one's misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality.
- Best to measure time now with one of the Randall plantation's cotton scales, her hunger and fear piling on one side while her hopes were removed from the other in increments. This is such an incredible sentence.
- In America the quirk was that people were things.
- On the Railroad itself: Their secret enterprise was a fraternity of odd souls.