Tuesday, July 12, 2016

I am reading: Bound for Canaan, by Fergus M. Bordewich

The subtitle of my copy (borrowed from the library) is "The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America." The image above, with a more forceful text, is from the paperback edition. It feels like a perfect time to be reading this book, under either title, given the events of the past two weeks (and the many past actions and tragedies they evoke). 
     At the start of the twenty-first century, Americans are in the midst of a contentious, often painful, national debate about slavery and its role in American history. At a time when earlier remedies for inequality have been discarded as politically and practically unacceptable, as the historian of American slavery Ira Berlin has put it, "slavery has become a language, a way to talk about race, in a society in which it seems that blacks and whites hardly talk to each other at all." Modern-day racism's roots lie in the slavery era, and any attempt to seriously address race today must also take into account not only the slavery of the past, but also the commitment and sacrifices of other Americans, both black and white, to bring slavery to an end. A better understanding of the Underground Railroad, and of men and women like George DeBaptiste [a black "conductor" in Indiana], deserves to be part of that conversation. . .
    The story of the Underground Railroad is an epic of high drama, moral courage, religious inspiration, and unexpected personal transformations played out by a cast of extraordinary personalities who often seem at the same time both startlingly modern and peculiarly archaic, combining then-radical ideas about race and political action with traditional notions of personal honor and sacred duty. . .
    The Underground Railroad's impact on the antebellum United States was profound. Apart from sporadic slave rebellions, only the Underground Railroad physically resisted the repressive laws that held slaves in bondage. The nation's first great movement of civil disobedience since the American Revolution, it engaged thousands of citizens in the active subversion of federal law and the prevailing mores of their communities, and for the first time asserted the principle of personal, active responsibility for others' human rights. By provoking fear and anger in the South, and prompting the enactment of draconian legislation that eroded the rights of white Americans, the Underground Railroad was a direct contributing cause of the Civil War. It also gave many African Americans their first experience in politics and organizational management. And in an era when proslavery ideologues stridently asserted that blacks were better off in slavery because they lacked the basic intelligence, and even the biological ability, to take care of themselves, the Underground Railroad offered repeated proof of their courage and initiative.
     The Underground Railroad, and the broader abolition movement of which it was a part, were also a seedbed of American feminism. . . In the underground, women were for the first time participants in a political movement on an equal plane with men, sheltering and clothing fugitive slaves, serving as guides, risking reprisals against their families, and publicly insisting that their voices be heard. ("Introduction") 
The cover of this book immediately caught my attention when I came across it in the library, with its pictures of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I didn't recognize all the people shown, and now I've met some of them, extraordinary characters - heroes - like Rev. Josiah Henson, a runaway slave who made it safely to Canada, where he established a colony in Ontario for his fellow fugitives. And Isaac Hopper, who began a long and distinguished career as an abolitionist and central figure on the railroad at age 16, when he helped a fugitive slave in Philadelphia find a safe home and work.

I've already ordered a copy for my shelves, since the library will want theirs back on Saturday.


  1. Adding to my list for later! Even if it is mostly about heroic people doing the right thing, I'm realizing that I don't actually have infinite energy for reading about the evils people do to each other. But it sounds really really interesting, and I'll definitely want to read it when I'm feeling a trifle more chipper.

    1. I totally get that. Reading the accounts of what the fugitives were escaping from hits really hard - as does the hard reality of the racism they faced in the northern states.

  2. I'm in a light and fluffy fiction phase right now, but I'll have to write this one down for when I get back into a non-fiction book phase. :)

    1. I took a break myself this weekend, to read something completely different (a Barbara Michaels mystery that scares me enough that I don't read it after dark :) But now I'm back on the railroad!


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!