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Bound for Canaan by Fergus M. Bordewich

It’s hard to imagine a more definitive one-volume account of the Underground Railroad than this dazzling book by Fergus Bordewich. Packed full of heroism and heartbreak, Bordewich presents a deeply researched, incredibly entertaining and comprehensive overview of the disparate band of abolitionists, philanthropists, fugitives, activists and devout pacifists that made up what Bordewich calls America’s first Civil Rights movement.

Throughout its 400+ pages, we’re treated to countless portraits of the tireless men and women, black and white, young and old, that made up the clandestine operation that shepharded thousands of former slaves to freedom in the American north and Canadian south between 1800 and the outbreak of the Civil War.

It’s this approach, imbuing his substantial grasp of the historical record with the deeply personal stories of those caught up in its sweep that makes this narrative fiction of the highest order.

Bordewich is a terrific storyteller, summoning vistas and conjuring moods like the finest novelist. Consider this passage describing Harriet Tubman’s rescue of her brothers in rural Maryland:

The brothers and their friends hurried north along the winding route of present-day Highway 16, through East New Market and Preston, past miles of stubbly cornfields, ice-crusted marsh, and gloomy, gray-green phalanxes of loblolly pines gaunt against the iron-colored sky. That was the visible landscape: over it, like a gossamer web, lay a less palpable human landscape of extended families and hidden underground affinities that may not even have been wholly visible to the brothers, and that indeed may have been linked only through the person of Harriet Tubman herself.

We’re also introduced to a variety of fascinating individuals. Apart from well known heroes like Tubman and Frederick Douglass, Bordewich weaves together the narratives of other lesser known activists like the hard-charging David Ruggles, indefatigable Quakers like Isaac Hopper and Levi Coffin, Arnold Gragston who rowed hundred of slaves across the Ohio River while still in bondage himself, Josiah Henson who founded a massive settlement for former slaves in Canada and Henry Bibb, a prolific newspaper founder and speaker.

We also learn about the great variety of methods, tools, secret codes and safe houses used to guide slaves to the North. Surprisingly, many of these safe houses became less and less secretive over time. As the North became more defiant in standing up to the slavocracy (especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law), many of the most prominent abolitionists like the Coffins were quite open about what they were doing.

There are so many stories told in these pages, so many feats of courage and so many daring rescues, that the book feels as if it must have been twice the length it actually is. I would, without hesitation, recommend it to anyone looking for a single-volume education on one of the most heartbreaking and inspiring times in American history. Bordewich sums it up beautifully near the end of his book:

Perhaps more than any other aspect of our mostly disheartening racial heritage, the story of the Underground Railroad thus stands as an answer to slavery’s legacy of hurt and shame, reminding us that our ancestors were not always enemies across an unbridgeable chasm of color, and that even a century and a half ago, we were capable of heroic collaboration.