Here you will find a The Underground Railroad summary (Colson Whitehead's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.
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The narrative centers around Cora, a young enslaved girl from a plantation in Georgia, who decides to make a perilous escape. Her maternal lineage is steeped in the harsh realities of slavery, from her grandmother Ajarry forcibly brought from Africa, to her mother, Mabel, who inexplicably abandoned her. Vulnerable and intolerant of injustice in her surroundings, Cora bravely stands up against her oppressors before partnering with a fellow slave, Caesar, to break free. Their getaway leads them to an actual subterranean railroad system, a vital escape route for enslaved people. Their first destination, South Carolina, presents a semblance of freedom but is marred by deceitful intentions and looming danger. Upon arrival in South Carolina, Cora and Caesar are welcomed by Sam, a friendly station agent providing them with shelter and employment. Initially oblivious to the underlying prejudice, they soon realize the state's sinister agenda to exterminate black people through deceptive medical practices. The terrifying news of the arrival of a slave catcher named Ridgeway forces Cora to flee, leaving Caesar behind. Her journey then takes her to North Carolina, a state riddled with violent racism to the extent of weekly public hangings. Hiding in the attic of reluctant allies, Martin Wells and his wife, Cora barely escapes Ridgeway once again when she falls ill and is discovered. The harsh journey continues through the devastated landscapes of Tennessee, where Cora is apprehended by Ridgeway and his vicious team. A brutal encounter with a potential rescuer in a quarantined town results in Cora overpowering Ridgeway and gaining her freedom. Her savior, Royal, leads her to an independent black community in Indiana, Valentine farm, where she finally experiences a genuine life of liberty. Yet the peaceful existence is short-lived as racial tensions escalate into a deadly attack on the farm. Once again, Cora finds herself in Ridgeway’s clutches, leading him to an underground railroad station in the hopes of escape. The narrative concludes with Cora embarking towards an uncertain future, journeying with an older black man named Ollie to California, leaving the readers' pondering about her fate.
Cora, the protagonist of the story, is a slave on a Georgia plantation. Her grandmother, Ajarry, was a captive in Africa before she was forced into slavery in America. Ajarry's journey to America is detailed, beginning with her dreadful voyage on The Nanny. She was initially sold in Charleston and changed hands multiple times until she ended up at the Randall plantation in Georgia. She had three husbands and five offspring, but only Mabel, Cora's mother, lived. Ajarry eventually succumbs to what seems to be a stroke or aneurism, dying in the cotton fields.
Cora, a 15-year-old slave, struggles with life on the Randall plantation. She endures hardship and conflict, especially during events like the invented celebration of “Jockey’s birthday.” She fiercely guards a small piece of land, inherited from her grandmother Ajarry and mother Mabel. Cora faces threats to her land from Ava, an adversary of her mother, and a new slave, Blake. After Blake destroys her garden and constructs a doghouse, Cora responds with anger and destroys the doghouse. Despite threats of violence, Cora stands her ground. She later endures sexual violence from Blake's friends and others, but remains steadfast and becomes the longest surviving resident of the Hob, the quarters for troubled and abused women. The Randall plantation is split into two. The northern half, where Cora lives, is run by James Randall, who is lax with his slaves. The southern half, managed by his brutal brother Terrance, is a place of cruel mistreatment and overwork. During Jockey's birthday celebration, Cora takes care of Chester, a young slave, and runs the children's races with the help of Lovey, her friend. Another slave, Caesar, approaches Cora with a plan to escape, which she initially rejects. The celebration turns violent when Chester accidentally spills wine on Terrance who savagely beats him. Cora intervenes, getting herself beaten unconscious in the process. In the days following, Cora and Chester are severely whipped. She is nursed back to health in the Hob but carries a permanent scar. As Cora reflects on her mother's successful escape from the plantation, she becomes determined to leave as well. James's death sees Terrance taking control of the entire plantation. Amidst this, Caesar returns with his escape plan which Cora finally accepts. When another slave, Big Anthony, is captured and burned alive, Cora realizes she must escape. With the help of Caesar, who has connections and skills from previous slave experience in Virginia, they prepare to escape via the underground railroad, gaining an unexpected companion in Lovey. Their journey is perilous, with Lovey being captured and Cora resorting to violence against a young boy. They eventually reach a safe house, hosted by Fletcher, who informs them of the backlash their escape has caused. Lovey has been returned and the boy Cora struck is rumored to have died. Fletcher guides them to the underground railroad, where they catch a train to an unknown destination, marking the start of their bid for freedom.
Arnold Ridgeway, the child of a Virginia blacksmith, is introduced in this section. Seeking a purposeful life, he joins groups targeting escaped slaves, free Black men, Native Americans, and criminals at age 14. His occupation takes him to New Jersey and New York where he thrives as a bounty hunter, retrieving escapee slaves. He acquires financial success and forms his own crew, returning to Virginia to aid plantation owners by catching runaway slaves. Although he fails to capture Cora's mother, Mabel, the task to find Cora makes him suspect the presence of an underground railroad in Georgia. He is determined to locate and eliminate it.
Cora and Caesar find themselves in South Carolina where they are given the aliases Bessie Carpenter and Christian Markson respectively. Bessie works as a housemaid and nanny for a lawyer's family while Christian works in a factory. They are reassured by Sam, the local station agent, that they can live as free people in the town. They live in a dormitory for Black people, managed by Miss Lucy who encourages Cora to learn to read, write, and talk properly. Cora attends school and hopes to find any information about her mother, Mabel, through Miss Lucy. She goes through multiple health examinations that she interprets as a sign of care from the white people in South Carolina. At a social event, Cora and Caesar share their life experiences and decide to make a life in South Carolina. However, Cora encounters a distressed woman, Gertrude, who seems to be reliving a traumatic event from slavery. In her new job at the Museum of Natural Wonders, Cora becomes an actor in three exhibits which she finds untruthful. A visit to the new hospital by a new doctor, Dr. Stevens, puts Cora on edge when he suggests a sterilization procedure for her. Cora connects the dots and realizes Gertrude from the dormitory was a victim of this forced surgery. Sam notifies Cora and Caesar about an incoming train and reveals some disturbing information about the hospital's unethical practices. He shares that the hospital is researching syphilis by infecting Black men and controlling population growth by sterilizing unfit Black women. During a visit to Miss Lucy, Cora learns that a slave catcher has arrived. Unable to find Caesar, she rushes to Sam who informs her about the presence of Ridgeway, a notorious slave catcher in the bar. Sam tells her to wait at the station platform for him and Caesar. However, after a while, she realizes that the house above is on fire and she is left alone on the platform.
This brief section uncovers the beginnings of Aloysius Stevens, the physician who advised Cora, a character in South Carolina, to undergo sterilization. During his medical schooling in Boston, Stevens worked at the Anatomy House during the night to maintain his fellowship. Here, he teamed up with Carpenter and his accomplice Hobbs, individuals with a reputation for grave robbing. While the trio were engaged in the act of stealing bodies of Black individuals, Stevens pondered upon the justifications behind such actions. The demand for corpses in medical schools for anatomical studies and procedure practice was high. However, the supply of legally obtained bodies fell short. This led to the emergence of "body snatchers". As white communities started guarding their deceased from these thefts and the culprits were punished by law enforcement and media, the grave robbers shifted their focus to the Black community. According to Carpenter, there was little to no backlash for robbing graves of Black individuals. Stevens held the view that the Black deceased were contributing to the advancement of science and medicine, and their worth in death exceeded their worth in life. This perspective evolved into a belief that Black individuals could be beneficial to science while alive, too. This mindset paved the path for Stevens's future endeavors of conducting experiments on former slaves in his capacity as a doctor in South Carolina.
Cora remains for days in a dark, rat-infested station beneath Sam's house. She's plagued by fears about the fate of Sam and Caesar, and is famished. Eventually, a train arrives. The conductor, who isn't meant to pick up passengers, lets her travel in the open flatcar. He informs her that the Georgia station is probably discovered and shut down. They speed into the darkness. The train halts at a station within a mountain. The conductor, who is in maintenance, plans to return south to report on the line's condition. Cora steps out in North Carolina, awaiting the station agent. Martin Wells, the station agent, finds Cora. He's surprised to see her as he was about to close the station due to the growing threat of the "night riders." On the way to town, he shows her the ironically named "Freedom Trail," which features numerous lynched Black people strung from trees. At Wells's home, Cora is introduced to Ethel, Wells's wife. She reluctantly houses Cora in a small attic space. The idyllic life of the town, visible through a hole in the attic, stands in sharp contrast to the harsh reality Cora finds herself in. The town's Friday Festival initially delights Cora, until horrifying acts follow. These include a racially offensive "coon show," a deceptive story about escaped slaves, and the public lynching of a captured Black girl. The horror of the town forces Cora to retreat to her corner. Cora spends months living as a prisoner in the attic, learning about North Carolina's brutal racial policies from Wells. The white leadership, fearful of the outnumbering Black population, decides to eradicate them and replace them with cheap white labor. Those found protecting Black people are punished with death, explaining Wells's and Ethel's terror. In June, Cora's safety is threatened on three occasions. She knocks over a pot that the maid hears, patrols nearly discover her attic hideout, and a couple is hung for sheltering two Black boys. She learns about Wells's reluctant involvement with the underground railroad. Cora falls ill and is cared for by Ethel in the guest room. They discuss Biblical contradictions on slavery. As Cora recovers and plans to return to the attic, patrollers, tipped off by Fiona, capture her. Ridgeway, the slave catcher, claims Cora. Fiona receives reward money, and Wells and Ethel are executed.
In her youth, Ethel Delany Wells dreamt of serving as a Christian missionary in Africa. Her family had a slave, Felice, and young Ethel would often play with Felice’s daughter, Jasmine. However, Ethel's father put an end to this. Felice and Jasmine lived in their attic, served the family, and after Felice's death, Jasmine took over the duties. Ethel's father sexually abused Jasmine. To put an end to this, Ethel's mother sold Jasmine, replacing her with an older woman. Ethel embarked on a teaching career and later married Martin. They lived happily in Virginia before relocating to North Carolina to sort out the estate of Martin's father, Donald. The couple inherited Donald's responsibilities in the underground railroad, much to Ethel's discontent as it put her life in danger. Yet, when Cora fell ill, Ethel's perspective changed. Caring for Cora allowed her to fulfill her early dream of serving an African.
Cora, bound and attached to Ridgeway's carriage, is westbound through Tennessee. Initially, they journey through areas scorched by unplanned fires initiated by white colonists, encountering the displaced settlers. Ridgeway indicates that the Cherokee nation, expelled from the state, made the trail they are following - the notorious Trail of Tears and Death. They journey with Boseman, Ridgeway's terrifying ally who wears a necklace of ears taken from an Indian named Strong. A young black boy named Homer, whom Ridgeway purchased and then emancipated, drives their wagon. Choosing to stay with Ridgeway, Homer chains himself to the wagon at night and maintains a journal of their travels and expenses. Cora learns they are heading west to collect another fugitive slave from Missouri before turning south to Georgia. Ridgeway shares the gruesome fate of Lovey upon her return to the Randall plantation. Overwhelmed with sorrow, Cora faints. They collect another fugitive, Jasper, who ceaselessly hums hymns despite Boseman's persistent punishments. One day, Ridgeway abruptly silences Jasper with a bullet to the face. "“Tennessee proceeded in a series of blights …” As they progress out of the fire-damaged areas, an outbreak of yellow fever prevents them from entering towns. They eventually arrive at a bustling town where a bespectacled Black man acknowledges Cora. After Homer procures a new dress and shoes for Cora, she and Ridgeway dine together, during which Ridgeway confirms the death of Caesar. Ridgeway elaborates on his belief in Manifest Destiny and their roles within it. They relocate the wagon to avoid the yellow fever. When Boseman tries to assault Cora, Ridgeway diffuses the situation, causing Boseman to fear for his life. A group of armed Black men, led by the bespectacled man, interrupts. One shoots Boseman while another chases Homer, and the leader battles Ridgeway. Cora assists, enabling the bespectacled man's victory. Cora is invited to join the Black men, but Homer absconds. Ridgeway is chained to the wagon, Cora retaliates by kicking him thrice, and they depart.
The short section unveils Caesar's journey before fleeing the Randall plantation. Accustomed to a liberated life in Virginia, working on a plantation is intolerable for him. Following a physical punishment, Caesar retreats to a schoolhouse in the evening for reading and contemplation, reminiscing about the times when books were plentiful. He delves into Travels into Several Remote Nations and ponders about how individuals squander their freedom by not valuing their possessions. In Cora, Caesar sees resilience and empathy, particularly towards Lovey and Chester. He observes her strength and adaptability, marking her as a survivor. He also notices her attachment to the things she owns, like her garden plot. Caesar realizes it is crucial to have Cora beside him in his escape plan and starts convincing her to be a part of it.
Following her escape, Cora journeys to Valentine farm in Indiana, a refuge for free Blacks, fugitives, and Black abolitionists. The farm is owned by John Valentine and his wife Gloria. At school, Cora realizes her knowledge is limited despite trying to educate herself in the Wells' attic. She shares a home with Sybil and her daughter Molly, and persistently inquires about her mother, Mabel. Every Saturday, residents of the farm hold a hog roast with performances. One week, Gloria Valentine introduces Mingo's contentious plan to relocate some residents, including Cora, due to fears of impending backlash from white settlers as the farm flourishes. After the meeting, Royal, the man who saved Cora from Ridgeway, shows up and they share an intimate moment. Cora's initial time on the farm is marked by Saturday events that often feature speeches by Elijah Lander, a free Black man. Worried, Cora fears she'll be expelled. Royal takes her on a buggy ride to see an abandoned underground railroad station under a decaying house, which disturbs Cora. Contrasting with the organized Tennessee station from where they departed, this one lacks connection to other stations. Recalling her journey to Valentine's farm, Cora remembers the clean passenger train and Royal's reassurance that the farm can be a pit stop on the route north. Tired of fleeing, Cora decides to stay despite the dangers. Sam, the South Carolina station master, arrives at the farm. He informs Cora that she's no longer pursued after Terrance Randall's death and Ridgeway's discreditation. Sam stays for three days before heading to California. Cora spends her time in the farm's library. One evening, she shares her fear of Mingo's population reduction plan with John Valentine, who contemplates relocating to Oklahoma given the increasing white hostility. Cora is hesitant but accepts the potential inevitability. The night before a horrific attack on the farm by white men, Royal gifts Cora a new almanac. The next day, a heated debate between Mingo and Lander ends with a white mob shooting Lander and Royal. As the farm descends into chaos, Cora is captured by Ridgeway, and Homer reveals that he overheard Royal's advice for her to head to the underground railway station.
This condensed portion of the story revisits the fate of Cora's mother, Mabel. Overwhelmed by the specters of those lost or destroyed on the Randall estate, she escapes one evening. Finding refuge in the swamp, she rests against the bank of an island, consuming a turnip from her patch. In this moment, she savors a fleeting yet intense taste of liberation. However, she chooses to return, clutching this memory and acknowledging her duty to Cora. Barely initiating her journey back, a cottonmouth snake bites her. The venom takes hold and she vanishes into the swamp.
The Valentine estate is in ruins, and Cora is seized by Ridgeway and Homer. However, she eventually exacts her vengeance. Cora leads Ridgeway to the hidden railroad station under a deserted house. As they descend, she hugs him as though for a dance, and drags him down the stairs with her. Although Cora is hurt, Ridgeway's injuries are fatal - a severe wound on his head and two broken legs. Cora boards a handcar and starts to leave the station while Homer attends to the dying Ridgeway, who continues to ramble about his fanciful notions of America. Cora travels for miles, later walking until she steps out of the tunnel. She stumbles upon a path where she meets three wagon cars. The third wagon is steered by an elderly Black man named Ollie. Ollie provides her food and offers to accompany him to St. Louis, and then to California. Intrigued by Ollie's story, Cora decides to follow him and the wagon convoy.