The Underground Railroad


cyxltn6waammdqtA book’s appearance on an awards list has been a pretty good indicator in the past of my inability to read it. I knew that this book was selected for Oprah’s Book Club- not a deal-breaker for me. Then it was longlisted for the National Book Award and I got nervous. It was starting to sound like something I would not be able to read my way through. Happily, I was wrong. I loved it. I began googling on the second page, starting with Ouidah, which is currently Benin, formerly Glewe, and center of the Vodun religion, which is more familiarly known as voodoo. Any time a book sends me researching ideas or places in the real world, I’m in my school-mode heaven. I love to learn, even if my aging brain at this juncture allows me to retain only a small portion of what I unearth.

A concern of mine when reading historical fiction is what the book contributes to the existing narrative, in this case, about slavery in the US. Does promote a different or more complete understanding? Does it illuminate? Most emphatically, yes, this one does. In a moving speech to a community of “Africans in America,” an abolitionist leader tells the crowd that, “sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth.” He goes on to enumerate some delusions, starting with, “Here’s one delusion: that we can escape slavery. We can’t. Its scars will never fade.” Finally,  he speaks of America as the grandest delusion of all. “The white race believes-believes with all its heart- that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft and cruelty. Yet here we are.” He goes on to say that he doesn’t know how the community should proceed into the future, but that color binds them together, and they will rise and fall as one. “We may not know the way through the forest, but we can pick each other up when we fall, and we will arrive together.”

The rhetoric is unique and profound, and the prose is at times very beautiful. A man whose father was white and mother was black describes himself: “I’m what the botanists call a hybrid,” he said the first time Cora heard him speak. “A mixture of two different families. In flowers, such a concoction pleases the eye. When the amalgamation takes its shape in flesh and blood, some take great offense. In this room we recognize it for what it is- a new beauty come into the world, and it is in bloom all around us.”


I was having trouble finding the beauty in this book because there is so much brutality. When I told my husband about it, he advised me to keep going because there was likely to be something I could find if I persevered.  Then I came to this heartbreaking scene where Cora, the main character, is alone in the train station waiting for the next arrival. Feeling so bereft in the dark, dank underground, all by herself, she muses about her condition. “She was a stray after all. A stray not only in its plantation meaning-orphaned, with no one to look after her-but in every other sphere as well. Somewhere, years ago, she had stepped off the path of life and could no longer find her way back to the family of people.” Cora had chosen this lonely path primarily to protect and insulate herself, until she was no longer able to connect with others. I cared about her character, and kept reading, hoping that she would experience in some way, a connection to another human being.

Later, Cora found her way to Valentine’s farm in Indiana with Royal’s help. When  he brought her the year’s almanac, reminding her of a very lonely, scary time in an attic in North Carolina, she began to tell him about her childhood on Randall, where she had picked cotton. She talked about her grandmother, Ajarry, and her mother, Mabel. About the small plot of earth she cultivated, and the doghouse, and the night behind the smokehouse. “He told her that every one of her enemies, all the masters and the overseers of her suffering, would be punished, if not in this world then the next, for justice may be slow and invisible, but it always renders its true verdict in the end. He folded his body into hers to quiet her shaking and sobs and they fell asleep like that, in the back of a cabin on the Valentine farm.” And with that, Cora finally rejoined the family of people-a stray no more, for at long last she had someone to take care of her. Beautiful.


In Tennessee, on the road with Ridgeway, the travelers, including Cora, shared a plate of salt pork and beans. This is apparently a southern staple, served with cornbread. Some use red kidney beans, or white like navy or great northern beans, or even black-eyed peas. The recipe below is a composite, designed to suit my personal taste.

Slow Cooker Pinto Beans
Makes about 8 cups

16 oz bag of pinto beans, sorted and rinsed
¾ C chopped carrots
1 C diced onions plus additional for topping
1 ham hock or 6 oz salt pork
2 cloves finely chopped garlic
6 cups water
½ tsp cayenne
1 T bacon drippings or butter
salt and pepper, to taste
hot sauce or Cajun seasoning to taste

Soak beans in 8 C of water overnight.

Set slow cooker on high. Spray sides with Pam for an easier post-meal clean-up.
Put in all the ingredients except hot sauce or Cajun seasoning, salt and pepper and bacon drippings or butter.

Heat 10 minutes on high. Reduce heat to low and cook 8-10 hours. Add the bacon drippings or butter, Cajun seasoning or hot sauce and salt and pepper to taste.

Serve topped with diced onions and hot sauce, with corn bread.

Servings: 8

1 C yellow cornmeal ( fresh, and preferably stone-ground)
1 C unbleached all-purpose flour
1 T baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ tsp baking soda
1 ¼ C buttermilk
1 large egg
2 T sugar
¼ C corn oil ( or plain vegetable oil)
2 T unsalted butter

Put a 10 inch cast iron skillet in the oven and preheat to 375º. (I only had a 12 inch and an 8 inch cast iron skillet. I used the 8 inch, baked it for 30 minutes, and it turned out fine.)

Combine the dry ingredients except for the baking soda in a bowl.
In another bowl, mix the buttermilk and the baking soda. Set aside.
In a small bowl, beat the egg with the sugar until combined.
Add the oil and mix until combined.
Pour this mixture into the buttermilk/baking soda, and mix.
When the oven is preheated, toss the butter into the skillet and let it melt.
Meanwhile, pour the wet ingredients into the dry, and mix in as few strokes as it takes to just make the dough come together.
Pull the skillet out of the oven, swirling to get the butter covering the bottom and up the sides of the skillet.
Pour the batter immediately into the pan, smoothing the top, then back into the oven for about 25 minutes, or until golden brown and pulled away from the sides of the pan.

Turn out onto a cutting board, cut into wedges and serve.



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