The Underground Railroad Summary

Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad

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The Underground Railroad Summary

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The Underground Railroad by Colton Whitehead takes place in the early nineteenth century in the South. Ajarry’s grandchild Cora is the protagonist of the story. Ajarry manages to obtain and keep control of some land in Georgia near the Randall plantation. After living there most of her life, she passes the land on to Cora and her mother, Mabel. Ajarry believes that any attempt to escape the plantation is folly. Mabel manages to escape; Cora is invited by Caesar, a fellow slave, to attempt an escape—an offer she initially declines. Ultimately, Cora decides that she will try to escape with Caesar.

They run from the Randall plantation, but on the first night of their escape, they meet Lovey, another slave. She guessed at their plans and decided to join them, eager to make her own bid for freedom. Their next interruption is from a group of hog rustlers, who attack the three runaway slaves and capture Lovey. Cora kills one of their attackers, then she and Caesar continue on their journey to freedom.

In South Carolina, they reach their first stop on the Underground Railroad. During the era in which slavery was legal in the United States, the Underground Railroad was a secret network or trail of persons willing and able to hide runaway slaves, and help them not only to reach the north where slavery was illegal, but also to help set them up with new lives so they could subsist once they got there. In South Carolina, Cora and Caesar receive new identities. Their new identities make them feel safe for the first time, and they start to become complacent, deciding not to pursue the Underground Railroad further north out of South Carolina.

Their complacency lasts until they find out that white citizens are using runaway slaves. They are discovered by a group of slave catchers led by Ridgeway. Cora and Caesar are separated, though Cora is able to escape, once more using the Underground Railroad to get out of South Carolina. She reaches North Carolina, where she meets Martin and Ethel Wells, who offer her refuge. At least, that’s what she thinks.

Instead of refuge, she becomes a prisoner in the Wells’ home. She’s turned in to Ridgeway and the Wells are left to deal with the angered citizens of a racist community. Ridgeway takes Cora to Tennessee, where he plans to capture another slave before returning Cora to the Randall plantation. Ridgeway informs Cora that Lovey was not only punished for her attempted escape, but that her punishment led to her death. He tells Cora that an even worse punishment waits for her.

Before Ridgeway can take her back to Randall plantation, Cora manages to enlist the help of a stranger. All it takes to earn his assistance is to catch his eye on the street. She escapes with him, and they go to Indiana. Cora ends up on a farm owned by the Valentine family, where other escaped slaves are starting new lives. Just when she thinks her freedom might be permanent this time, she is once more found and taken by Ridgeway. Unwilling to succumb to the fate that he spelled out for her, Cora fights for her freedom and escapes on the Underground Railroad yet again, surfacing at the end of the line. There she meets a black man who is taking a caravan out West. Cora joins them, and goes to start her new life, finally free.

Interspersed in the narrative of The Underground Railroad are chapters that follow other characters in the same way Ajarry’s life was depicted in the beginning of the book. These characters come from all walks of life and have different roles in Cora’s story. They include Cora’s mother Mabel, Caesar, Ethel Wells, and Ridgeway.

The most prominent theme in this book is that Cora’s journey to freedom is more than physical. It’s also emotional and mental. She has to desire freedom in her heart, and be willing to do whatever it takes, in order to find herself physically free. Another important theme is the role of memory. Memories influence most of Cora’s decisions, as evidenced by the way they’re included in her narrative.

Race and slavery are also important themes. However, even though Cora’s story is told as a slave in the southern states of the United States, her bids for freedom from oppression and racism can be seen as a parallel to many stories around the world. As part of her story, she must overcome imprisonment and torture–even the thread of it, for example Ridgeway’s promise that she will suffer worse than Lovey did upon returning to Randall plantation.