Books: Ad­ven­tures of an es­caped slave

RUSTY LO­CO­MO­TIVE: Like a rusty lo­co­mo­tive, the story moves at high speed then jerks into a slow crawl. And there are too many mi­nor char­ac­ters that are dif­fi­cult to keep track of

The East African - - THE MAGAZINE - Kari Mutu, Spe­cial Correspondent

The Un­der­ground Rail­road, by Col­son White­head, tells the story of a slave’s es­cape and her per­ilous jour­ney through se­cret routes and safe havens.

Cora was born into slav­ery in the early 1800s. Her mother Ma­bel was born a slave; her grand­mother was cap­tured in West Africa. Life on the cot­ton plan­ta­tion in Ge­or­gia is es­pe­cially tough for the young girl be­cause her mother is de­spised by her fel­low slaves.

Then Ma­bel runs away one night with­out say­ing a word and a dev­as­tated Cora be­comes a pariah or­phan with no friends and no­body to pro­tect her from be­ing mo­lested by other slaves.

When the mild-tem­pered plan­ta­tion owner dies and the farm is taken over by his vi­o­lently abu­sive brother, 15-year-old Cora agrees to run away with a fel­low slave called Cae­sar who knows about the un­der­ground rail­road. The route is an ac­tual sub­ter­ranean rail­way track com­plete with engineers, sta­tions and de­crepit wagons.

A loose sys­tem of abo­li­tion­ists and sym­pa­thetic white peo­ple har­bour them in se­cret hide­outs and at­tics, and the two are able start a new life with new iden­ti­ties in South Carolina.

How­ever, a no­to­ri­ous slave catcher starts look­ing for them. From South Carolina to North Carolina, Ten­nessee, In­di­ana and beyond, we fol­low Cora’s ter­ri­fied jour­ney. Each stop gives fresh in­sight into the per­ilous life of African-amer­i­cans in the slave era, where bounty hunters are never far away.

The tor­ture in­flicted on slaves and cap­tured ru­n­aways is de­scribed bluntly, but the nar­ra­tive re­mains de­cent. You are al­ways anx­ious for Cora, won­der­ing if she will ever be rid of the slave catcher, ever stop run­ning away, find her mother or live free for more than a few months.

White­head weaves in other historic el­e­ments like the dan­gers faced by white peo­ple who aided ru­n­aways, the in­jus­tices com­mit­ted against Na­tive Amer­i­can peo­ple, forced ster­il­i­sa­tion of black women and medical ex­per­i­ments on African-amer­i­cans that echoes the con­tro­ver­sial Tuskegee Syphilis Study of the early 20th cen­tury. You get a sense of the angst brought on by the Fugi­tive Slave Act where for­mer slaves, even those liv­ing in the free North­ern states, could legally be cap­tured and re­turned to their old masters. The chap­ters move from the present to back­sto­ries of dif­fer­ent peo­ple, a strat­egy that some­times in­ter­rupts the pro­gres­sion of the nar­ra­tive. There is some­thing emo­tion­ally de­tached about Cora’s per­son­al­ity, her anger to­wards her mother and her at­trac­tion to Cae­sar. I un­der­stood the hor­rors she went through but didn’t al­ways feel them, per­haps be­cause she is writ­ten in the third per­son.

Like a rusty lo­co­mo­tive, the story moves at high speed then jerks into a slow crawl. And there are too many mi­nor char­ac­ters that are dif­fi­cult to keep track of.

Nev­er­the­less, it is a well­re­searched novel where sur­re­al­ism and truth have been used to present a dark pe­riod of Amer­i­can history. White­head has writ­ten seven other books.

The Un­der­ground Rail­road was on the read­ing list for Pres­i­dent Obama and in Oprah’s Book Club. It won the 2016 Na­tional Book Award and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

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