Tag Archives: The Underground Railroad

A themed post about books and trains

From time to time I like to consider books linked by titles or themes or in some other way. Today the link is trains. Trains take people away from loved ones, and towards others. The cast of characters is random and usually constant, at least while the train is moving. These features make trains ideal settings for murder mysteries: think Murder on the Orient Expressby Agatha Christie (1934), or Strangers on a Trainby Patricia Highsmith (1950). And a station obscured by steam is a perfect setting for dramatic events: Anna Karenina by Tolstoy (1877) is an example.

My list of train books is slightly quirky. It includes two novels, two wartime accounts and the events on a station that led to the most significant publishing revolution of the last century.

The Underground Railroadby Colson Whitehead (2016)

The underground railroad was a means by which slaves from the American Southern States were helped to escape and find freedom in the North. Making the railroad a concrete thing, with stations, tracks, engines, engineers and boxcars, was a daring move by Colson Whitehead. It had the effect of emphasising the hard work of building the network, maintaining it and it also exposed the vulnerability of the routes to freedom and the many ways to disrupt it. This is hard and important read. Here’s a link to the reviewof this book on Bookword in October 2017. 

A Wreath of Rosesby Elizabeth Taylor (1949)

This novel is not primarily about trains or train journeys, but the train is significant in the scene that opens the novel and announces the changes that Elizabeth Taylor will explore. 

Afternoons seem unending on branch-line stations in England in summer time. The spiked shelter prints an unmoving shadow on the platform, geraniums blaze, whitewashed stones assault the eye. Such trains as come only add to the air of fantasy, to the idea of the scene being symbolic, or encountered at one level while suggesting another even more alienating. (1)

We have been warned. The scene seems unchanging, stultifying. We encounter something else after this wonderful sentence.

Then, with a collapsing sound, the signal dropped. (2)

Three people on the platform, Camilla, another traveller and the stationmaster, observe the approach of the through train.

All at once, the man on the footbridge swung himself up on the parapet and, just as Camilla was putting out her arms in a ridiculous gesture as if to stop him, he clumsily jumped, a sprawling jump, an ill-devised death, since he fell wide of the express train.

This happening broke the afternoon in two. The feeling of eternity had vanished. (3)


The opening scene introduces us to the idea of impermanence and transition. Camilla and Richard are both on journeys. She is travelling to Abingford to spend August with her friends. He is in flight from his past, looking for respite. This is a dark novel exploring loneliness as so many of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels do. You can find the full review here.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead  (2011)

Trains played an infamous role in the Holocaust. 230 French women were sent to Auschwitz in January 1943, arrested for anti-German activities. This book is a depressing account of their experience of barbarity, inhumanity and suffering.

The culpability of the Vichy government, the French police, the German occupiers of France, the many who betrayed the communists and members of the Resistance, the guards and commanders of the camps, the medical staff, the Kapos is overwhelming. And so is the disappointment of the women who were largely ignored on their return to France.

What kept the 49 women who survived alive? Friendship, care for each other, courage, hope and a determination to tell the story of what they had experienced and seen. 

Train to Nowhereby Anita Leslie (1948)

The title of this book could be considered misleading, as no train appears in it. The title refers to the journey being over. This train is going nowhere.

Another wartime book, this time the account of a well-connected young woman who joined the MTC as a mechanic and was sent to the Middle East during the Second World War. She drove ambulances, until the war moved away. Then she became a journalist, chasing stories and promoting circulation of the newspaper for the troops. When she could see that there was no prospect for action, she transferred to Italy, and followed the Allies up through Italy, pausing for the last days of the Battle of Cassino. As the British Army and Red Cross would not allow ambulance drivers near the front line she transferred to the French army and supported the battles in Alsace and then into Germany.

Her account is especially sparkling when it refers to the people she worked with, met on her travels, the lunches she was invited to (including by Churchill as she was his cousin) and several ranking army personnel. But the strongest impression is of the bravery as her division went into battle and the drivers ferried the wounded to hastily set up, often fast moving, medical facilities.

Exeter Station and a publishing revolution

The story goes that in 1934 returning from a weekend with Agatha Christie, at Greenway above the River Dart, Allen Lane had to wait on the Exeter St David’s station platform. Already working for Bodley Head, frustrated by the shortage of cheap and portable books, and no doubt influenced by recent contact with a popular author he conceived the idea for the Penguin paperback. 

The original format was soon expanded to Pelicans (non-fiction and blue) and Puffins (for children). The original orange covers of the Penguins later diversified into green for detective novels, black for classics, and other colours, such as purple for essays. Allen Lane’s intentions were anti-elitist. In All About Penguin Books in The BooksellerMay 1935 he said the project would be a success if

these Penguins are the means of converting book borrowers in to book-buyers. 

He was, he said, aiming at nothing less than

the popularisation of the bookshop and the increased sale of books.

You can find the full story here.

Please suggest more books with train links.

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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The underground railroad was a means by which slaves from the American Southern States were helped to escape and find freedom in the North. Making the railroad a concrete thing, with stations, tracks, engines, engineers and boxcars, is a daring move by Colson Whitehead. It has the effect of emphasising the hard work of building the network, maintaining it and it also exposes the vulnerability of the routes to freedom and the many ways to disrupt it.

The story of The Underground Railroad

This novel is Cora’s story. It tells of her life on the Randall’s cotton plantation in Georgia from which she is determined to escape. The difficulties in realising an escape encountered by Cora in each state she passes through form the bulk of this novel, with occasional short sections to reveal what happened to those who played a part in her journey. Spurring her on are the experiences of her grandmother, captured in Africa and a survivor of the fearsome middle passage. Cora’s own mother achieved notoriety, or a reputation, by being the only escapee not have been returned to the Randall’s place. There are men who make a living out of catching and returning slaves to their owners. And the owners themselves are without qualms when they punish returned slaves. They aim to deter others. Cora makes her bid for freedom, partly encouraged by her mother’s example and partly because another slave, Caesar, provides the opportunity and the moment.

It is quickly established that Cora cannot do this on her own, but nearly every one who meets and helps her is killed, often brutally and others become damaged as she makes her slow journey to freedom. This is a story of violence and inhumanity.

She comes across many different ways in which black women are enslaved. It begins with the backbreaking work on the plantation, and the law that casts the slave as the property of her owner. Her owner can dispose of her as he wishes. Randall sets the slave catcher, Ridgeway on Cora’s trail. Already eluded by her mother’s escape, Ridgeway develops a terrifying obsession with tracking down Cora. Their paths cross, she escapes, and again, until …

Cora finds sanctuary with sympathisers as she eludes Ridgeway. In South Carolina they are treating the black folks well, educating them, providing employment and offering healthcare. The healthcare is compromised, however, designed to sterilise slaves, so Cora moves on.

In North Carolina they have a policy of violent eradication of all black residents. Hidden in an attic Cora witnesses brutal executions of those who harbour escapees, and of the escapees themselves. Another escape, to a farm colony in Indiana, but the local people find it too threatening and a massacre takes place. Cora escapes the massacre because Ridgeway captures her.

At each moment of escape Cora must find the railroad platform, wait for a train, and travel with it to the next unknown destination. Ultimately it is the railroad that saves her from Ridgeway’s final attempt to recapture her.

Some reflections

This is an exciting story exposing the effects of an immoral set of beliefs. The story moves along briskly, but at times I did not want to read on because of what I feared would come next.

The questions posed by The Underground Railroad are important– for example, what forms of slavery are there beyond the plantation? What do white supremacist beliefs mean today? How can the world atone for such uprooting, such brutal treatment, such unspeakable acts? How is it that we continue to value humans differently, separating out people by the accident of birth, or differentiating between economic migrants and asylum seekers? What forms of slavery exist today? Is the work of a few dedicated railroad maintenance workers enough to keep people from being subjugated by others?

This is a powerful novel, which deserves the success it has been enjoying. In itself it is a strong argument for the importance of fiction to show us other worlds and experiences. Thanks to Ed for the recommendation and for lending me his copy.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016). Paperback version published by Fleet. 366pp

Winner of Pulitzer Prize for fiction 2017.

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