‘JOSIAH HENSON’S earliest memory was of the day that his father came home with his ear cut off.’ So begins the first chapter of Fergus M. Bordewich’s outstanding history Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (HarperCollins, 528 pages, $27.95). Henson, born a Maryland slave in the eighteenth century and later an abolitionist, writer, preacher, and founder of a Canadian colony for former slaves, is believed to have been the model for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s hero in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. His is just one of many riveting biographies in Bound for Canaan, which illuminates the lives of the many giants, forgotten and famous, black and white, enslaved and free, of the Underground Railroad, that loose network of safe houses and surreptitious routes northward, which began about 1770 and lasted until 1865.
Bordewich’s impressive success with Bound for Canaan rests on formidable research, artful organization of sprawling material, and tight, clear, brawny storytelling. He vividly recounts some of the better-known tales of escape. Henry ‘Box’ Brown mailed himself to freedom in a crate, and Bordewich takes the reader into the box with Brown, tucked in a fetal position and turned upside down for so long that his eyes bulged out of their sockets. In another well-known episode, a light-skinned Georgia woman named Ellen Craft passed herself off as an invalid white man and traveled north in style on an actual railroad, attended by a ‘manservant’—her darker-skinned husband, William. One tale about a run-away woman who, seconds from capture, tries to murder her children rather than see them return to slavery, gave this modern and moderately cynical reader nightmares.
Bound for Canaan is an epic that takes the reader from the very beginning of the Underground Railroad to the end of the line. Bordewich describes how former slaves coped with newfound liberty and how abolitionists handled retirement or found new causes. It seems no exaggeration to suggest that the hundred thousand men, women, and children who escaped on the Underground Railroad, and the efforts of those who helped deliver them to freedom, form one of the marvels in the history of human survival.
This review by Jillian Sim originally appeared in the May 2005 issue of American Heritage magazine.