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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead Summary Study Guide

Detailed plot synopsis reviews of The Underground Railroad


Plot

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 penis 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 penises.


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.

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Characters

Cora: Cora is a slave on a Georgia plantation who runs away. She is inspired by her mother Mabel who ran away, although perhaps she would have been less inspired if she knew that Mabel got eaten by a large snake in the swamp. This book follows Cora's adventures on the "underground railroad" as she goes from one safe house to another, eventually getting freed. Cora doesn't really have much of a personality besides hating and fearing white people.

Ridgeway: Ridgeway is the Boba Fett of this book. He's a bounty hunter. He's sent to track Cora down. He doesn't have any strong feelings for or against slavery, he's just doing a job. In fact, he frees a slave named Homer that he buys. But neither does he treat slaves very well, blowing one guy's brains out for talking too much.

Terrance Randall: Terrance is Cora's "massa". He beats her cruelly and is Cora's incentive to flee. He also enjoys squeezing her breasts.

Homer: Homer is a slave who Ridgeway freed. But Homer really likes being Ridgeway's slave, to the point where Homer chains himself to Ridgeway's wagon every night. Do'h!

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Themes

Even slaves can be mean to other slaves. Cora is treated badly by other slaves, forced to live in "Hob", the bad cabin. She has her plot of land taken away from her by another slave and gets raped by other slaves. Whitey is not the only villain in this story.

Slavery was a mainstream part of southern society. As Cora saw from looking out of her peephole in the attic in North Carolina, there were big crowds at regular rallies in the park supporting slavery. This wasn't some fringe movement, it was supported by many people in the state.

White people risked their lives to help escaped slaves. We were told stories of underground railroad helpers who were hung or burned to death for helping slaves escape.  As Cora is led away, captured, in North Carolina, she sees the people who hid her, Martin and Ethel, tied to a tree, having rocks thrown at them.

Runaway slaves make dumb decisions. After escaping from Georgia, a slave state, Cora actually agrees to stay in South Carolina, another slave state. True, she has the relative safety of living at a sympathetic white establishment, but bounty hunters can take her away at any time and she has no rights. It's a very dumb decision. Equally dumb was hiding in the attic in North Carolina for several months. She would have been better off trying to escape at night. She didn't, and she got caught.

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