WITH Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, author Fergus Bordewich has succeeded in combining two of the most elusive topics of Underground Railroad research into one highly enjoyable book. Not only is this a comprehensive history of the Underground Railroad as it existed on a national scale, but it is also a skillful defense of the integral part that slavery played in driving this nation to civil war.
Researchers and students of the Underground Railroad have been in need of a readable volume that deals with the entire range of activities that comprised that revolutionary movement. Many good books have been published dealing with noteworthy individuals and specific areas of the country, but Bordewich has managed to weave all of the major figures and a multitude of fascinating minor figures into one very useful and fascinating history.
Historians can appreciate Bordewich’s careful navigation through the historical minefield of apocryphal stories and undocumented local lore, ultimately producing a solid history that does not skimp on the human drama. Indeed, this book reads more like a novel, filled as it is with hair-raising escapes, daring plots and bloody confrontations. Bordewich handles all of the suspenseful scenes with a skilled storyteller’s touch, making it a real page-turner. I found myself unable to put the book down at many key points: Josiah Henson’s tortured debate over whether to expose his family to the risks of taking flight, and their ultimate hazardous trek for freedom; the explosive confrontation at Christiana, Pennsylvania between the proud Maryland slaveholder Edward Gorsuch and the bravely defiant William and Eliza Parker.
The book does not become sidetracked in detail, though, and stays on a steady, irrevocable course toward its conclusion. The succession of events that became increasingly partisan, notorious, violent and divisive land one after another in the reader’s lap, bringing the same mixed sense of patriotic excitement and impending doom that must have filled the hearts of their historical participants. Bordewich so deftly weaves this story of national strife that, by the end of the book, it is only the benefit of historical hindsight that allows us to feel a deep sense of national pride at having come through the storm, instead of indignation from an increasingly bitter feud. That realization is what makes this book more than just another history of the smoldering antebellum decades.
Bordewich not only defines the debate over slavery as a central issue, he illustrates with vivid stories the defiance, horror and unalterable beliefs that kept it there. His story of the Underground Railroad emerges, in the end, as more than just the recounting of a heroic and noble effort, but as the title implies, reveals a concerted movement to change the very foundation of beliefs upon which the nation stood.
This is a book that I’m sure will be constantly open, next to my computer, and not resting on the bookshelf.
More information on the Underground Railroad is available at the Afrolumens Project online.