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Book Review: A perilous journey from slavery to freedom.

In the days of slavery in the US, the underground railroad was a covert system of smuggling slaves from southern to northern states. But in his book The Underground Railroad, author Colson Whitehead has imagined an actual train that operated below ground, secretly trafficking runaways to safety.

Cora, 15, was born into slavery in the 1800s, at a cotton plantation in Georgia state that belongs to a congenial slaveowner. When her mother Mabel vanishes one night without a word, young Cora becomes an outcast among her fellow slaves and at risk of assault. Matters get worse when the master dies and the farm is taken over by his brother, who is notorious for his cruetly and has shown an interest in Cora.

Under the circumstances, and despite the massive risks involved, Cora is convinced to escape by a recently arrived slave called Caesar, who is familiar with the underground railway. The one-track subterranean line, complete with engineers, stations and decrepit wagons, is operated by a network of freedmen and sympathetic white people. Along the way, Cora kills a white youth, adding murder to her list of sins. Hot on their heels is an infamous slave catcher called Ridgeway, doubly peeved for having never found Mabel.

With new identities, jobs and housing, the couple restart their lives in the state of South Carolina. Their blissful respite ends when Ridgeway catches up with them. Cora escapes back to the underground without Caesar. But whenever she settles into a new place in different state, the slave hunter finds her. It is a tortuous game of cat-and-mouse and near-death escapes. All the while, Cora never stops agonising over her mother's desertion.

From one chapter to the next, Whitehead moves us from the present moment to backstories and a plethora of minor characters that interrupt the ride. This is essentially an escapee tale but he draws in other dark aspects of the era like the forced sterilisation of black women, medical experiments on black men, and the plight of native Americans tribes. We learn of the Fugitive Slave Act that extends the death penalty to include escapees captured in the north and the dangers faced by white people who harboured runaways.

There are vivid descriptions of slave torture, snatching of Africans and separating of mothers from children. Yet Whitehead balances the horror with periods of peace and acts of kindness. The novel races along then rolls leisurely like a real locomotive. The point of view is mostly from Cora's perspective but at times it feels emotionally bland, possibly because she is narrating in the third person. Nonetheless, it is a courageous story and you keep hoping that at last the heroine will find a permanent place of freedom.

Released in 2016, Underground Railroad was selected for Oprah's Book Club, was on President Obama's reading list and it won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

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Publication:The Star (Nairobi, Kenya)
Date:Jan 27, 2018
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