Welcome to Week 3 of the Online Book Club discussion of The Underground Railroad.
How was the reading for you this week? I was confused, at first, as to why the different states Cora visited had such different reactions to enslaved people, but this article on NPR helped me understand the meaning of each state a bit better. What did you think about the fact that each state was so different?
This section starts with a chapter about Stevens, the doctor who explained the strategic sterilization process to Cora in South Carolina. I thought this section was a little confusing, but I think it was meant to show that Stevens thought he was doing a favor to enslaved people by performing medical experiments on them or stealing their bodies for science. He believed that he was giving them a chance to contribute to society, even after their deaths. Obviously, that is a horrible way of thinking, and it leads to abhorrent medical practices, but I think that line of thinking is what makes Stevens so dangerous. He isn't outwardly horrible to the enslaved people, but he still uses and abuses them. And, he doesn't even realize what he's doing is wrong. That's very scary.
Throughout most of this section, Cora is in North Carolina. North Carolina was so much scarier than South Carolina. North Carolina does not allow any Black people at all, and they have a horrible road with Black people and corroborators displayed on pikes. Did you catch that the people of North Carolina feared retribution from the enslaved people, so they outlawed slavery and Black people in general? Instead, they relied on work from immigrants. Apparently, Whitehead based a lot of the ideas for this North Carolina chapter on real laws that were in place in Oregon in the 1800s--you can check out this article to read more about the real-life inspiration for the book here. And, you can read more about the Oregon laws here.
What did you think of Martin and Ethel, the ones who agree to hide Cora? I appreciated that they were willing to hide Cora, but she had a pretty bleak existence with them. She lived like a caged animal up in that hot attic. After all of the care she put into staying quiet and out of the way, she is still betrayed by the servant girl, Fiona. Ridgeway comes to get Cora, and Martin and Ethel are killed. What did you think about the section about Ethel after the North Carolina section? I thought that part was devastating. I think she thought she was doing good, but the fact that she classified Cora as a savage and felt such a holiness in sharing the "Holy Word," with her made me so uncomfortable. Ethel definitely paid the ultimate price for helping Cora, but I don't think that absolves her of her viewpoints.
What did you think of the Tennessee section? I just feel like I can't really understand Ridgeway. He hunts down enslaved people and treats them like animals, but he keeps Homer with him and treats him like a child? It feels like Ridgeway keeps his views of enslaved people in one part of his brain and hunts them down for a job but has other personal feelings for them. I don't know--he's hard to understand completely. What do you think? He was kind of kind to Cora at some parts, getting her a dress and actually speaking to her. But, he tracked her down like an animal. He just seemed like a dual personality in some respects.
I think I expected the Tennessee section to be really bloody and stressful, but it was surprisingly calm. I couldn't believe that Ridgeway wasn't taking Cora back to Georgia immediately, especially since we realize that Terrance wants her returned alive, not dead. I didn't enjoy reading about Ridgeway killing Jasper, but, honestly, I was surprised that Ridgeway was patient with Jasper for as long as he was. At the end of the section, Ridgeway is attacked by a band of formerly enslaved people, and Cora is able to escape. What do you think is going to happen to her next? How do you think this book will end?
Have you checked out anything about the streaming series adaptation of the book? Check out the video clip below if you'd like to hear Barry Jenkins, the director, talk about his experience with the series. Let me know if you've watched the series, or if you're planning on watching it!
I'm anxious to know your thoughts about the book, so I hope you'll leave a comment! And, I hope you'll join us again next week as we finish the book.