The only way to know how long you were lost in the darkness is to be saved from it. Cora, a slave in the early 1800s with a legacy passed along by her mother who escaped the Randall Plantation and left her behind, is our storied heroine in this, Colson Whiteheads August 2016 release. So much awaited was this new novel by Whitehead that the release date was bumped up a full month and it was chosen as a coveted Oprahs Book Club selection. To say that the story of Coras life in slavery and subsequent escape was riveting would be an understatement. Whitehead imagines an Underground Railroad as an actual railway with a real locomotive that flees through the night on haphazard scheduling, bringing escaped slaves to the beginnings of freedom. What we realize through Coras story, is that freedom is a long time coming and sometimes, even those who seem sympathetic, are not. Whitehead attempts to address so many issues in the early 19th century black slave experience, from breeding to evaluating the monetary value of slaves, to rape and lynching, even a horrifying tale of involuntary birth control to limit the population of freed blacks. As she runs further to escape such strife the railroad leads Cora and those she meets along a journey from the horrific to the tragic. Told in the third person, we examine Coras experience along her route and make some assumptions about the extent of her emotional journey and thought processes, those of a young, black woman with her first glimpses of an unjust world. She must hide her identity to protect herself from the bounty hunters on her trail and sometimes I found it scary to turn the page for fear of who or what she might encounter next as I was gripped with the realization that so many real people, attempting a freedom of their own, did not get near as far. Whitehead allows us to listen to the backstories and historical ugliness used to justify what made slavery possible in our history and that is the truth that can linger from this telling. Coras story will stick with me, there will be moments when I consider my own freedoms that I think of her journey forever. Whiteheads novel requires careful study, as I found myself having to re-read a few paragraphs to allow the story and beautiful prose to really soak in, but in the midst he pieces together the harrowing account of so many artfully crafted around the fictional Cora.
After Cora, a slave in pre-Civil War Georgia, escapes with another slave, Caesar, they seek the help of the Underground Railroad as they flee from state to state and try to evade a slave catcher, Ridgeway, who is determined to return them to the South.