This was an in-your-face book. From the very first page, when we are introduced to Ajarry, the heroine’s grandmother, who is kidnapped from her village in Africa and sold several times before she makes it to the ship, we are hooked. Hooked by the horror, hooked by the storytelling. And the book continues at the same cracking pace with the tale of Ajarry’s granddaughter, Cora, who finds herself having to fend for herself at a very young age, after her mother disappears.
The cruelties exacted on the slaves in the Georgia plantation are chilling, and Cora runs away, at huge risk to herself and to the remaining slaves. The slave resettlement program, for want of a better word, in which she finds temporary refuge in North Carolina is soon revealed as deeply flawed. So Cora runs away, again. She hides in an attic for several months, she is caught by a slave catcher, she braves innumerable dangers and hardships. And in between each location she finds herself on her bid for true freedom, there is the railroad.
Coulson presents the underground railroad as a network of trains that actually travel underground, an enormous subway system, whereas it was in reality no such thing. It was “underground” in name only, being clandestine. It does add a clever fantastical touch to an already extraordinary adventure, where the odds are so stacked against escaping slaves that it seems only magical intervention can provide salvation. And indeed in her final journey underground, Cora finds herself digging her way to her next destination, surely a metaphor for the struggle she goes through to achieve what she has set out to do.
The book makes for difficult but compelling reading. It reminds us of a period of history that is not so distant: the systematic trafficking and ruthless exploitation of millions of men, women and children, orchestrated for centuries over three continents. And I think the novel begs the question of how long it will take for the resulting deep scars to heal.