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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead Summary Study Guide

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Plot Summary Part 1

Cora is a slave on a southern plantation owned by the Randall brothers. After her mother dies, she undergoes a change in status. She becomes an even lower class slave, if that is possible. She is sent to a cabin for rejects called "Hob" and her little farming plot is taken away by a bigger slave who uses it to house his dog. Cora picks up a hatchet and chops apart the dog house and part of the dog in the process. And after that no one tries to take her little farming plot away from her.


If you wonder why slaves are given access to hatchets, I wondered that too.


The other slaves feared Cora but also made fun of her, saying she had sex with donkeys and goats. Cora gets raped by some black guys on the farm, but no donkeys or goats. Slaves raping slaves! It happened.

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Their evil massa was named Terrance. He liked to have sex with slaves on their wedding nights before their husbands did, to teach their husbands the proper way to reproduce. When a slave accidently bumped into Terrance and caused a drop of wine to drip on him, he started to beat the slave. Cora decided to step between them so she would get beaten too. Cora gets her wish and gets caned. She gets an additional whipping the next day.


We learn from this that Cora is tough, and also a glutton for punishment.


When Cora's mom Mabel escaped from the plantation, their massa was so angry that he hired a witch doctor to cast a spell that he thought would give escapees a painful illness.


Mabel was never caught, so it was presumed she had escaped, until we learned at the end that a snake ate her. Cora is angry with her mother the entire book for abandoning her. Maybe if she knew that Mom was eaten by a snake she might not have been quite so angry.


When an escaped slave named Big Anthony was caught, he was doused in oil and roasted on fire while Massa and his friends watched like an evening at the theater. But first his p_nis had been cut off, stuffed in his mouth, and sewn in. This was meant to scare other slaves into being too afraid to try to run away, especially those with larger p_nises.


Their Massa Terrance went over to Cora and squeezed her breasts. Terrance is not only a slave roaster but also a breast squeezer as well.


At that point Cora, tired of having her breasts squeezed, agreed to escape with a slave named Caesar. While escaping, Cora killed a young boy, bashing his head against the stump of a tree, when he tried to catch her.


They made their way to the first stop on the underground railroad to the home of a sympathetic white man named Fletcher.  He passed them onto another man named Lumbly, and before Cora knew it, she was in South Carolina. She was brought there in a boxcar where she met a man named Sam. Sam tells them that South Carolina is much more "enlightened" than Georgia when it comes to blacks.


Cora is given a cover identity. She was told her new name was Bessie and that she is "owned" by the state of South Carolina.  She is given a maid's job and a black dormitory to live in.


For the first time in her life Cora is given a choice. She can take an underground railroad "train" to a more secure place, or she can stay in South Carolina, which is a slave state. Cora incomprehensibly decides to stay in South Carolina. She has a job and good food, but she is continually at risk of being found and returned to her Massa. This is after all a slave state.

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