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Bookmarks Issue: 
17-July-Aug-2005
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The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America

A-BoundforCanaanThe Underground Railroad represented young America’s first act of inward-looking civil disobedience. What began in the early 19th century as a project of conscientious Methodists and Quakers soon became an efficient network for helping escaped slaves that stretched from the upper American South to Canada. Familiar names and stories abound: Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and the anecdotes that served as inspiration for Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the end, though, Bound For Canaan is a loving history of the brave unnamed and named people—George DeBaptiste, Levi Coffin, Jermain Loguen, and countless others—who trod the midnight path to freedom or aided others, all in the name of social change.
Amistad/Harper Collins. 540 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 0060524308

Wall Street Journal 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The network of abolitionists devoted to helping slaves find their freedom wasn’t described as ‘underground’ for nothing. … Yet in Bound for Canaan Fergus M. Bordewich illuminates the lives and times of the Underground Railroad’s stationmasters, conductors and passengers. He has written an excellent book that is probably as close to a definitive history as we’re likely to see." John J. Miller

Fort Worth Star-Telegram 4 of 5 Stars
"… as is proper for the tale of a movement that depended on the deeds of thousands of conscientious, ordinary individuals, it is the human element that makes Bordewich’s book so successful and appealing. … [He] serves up the tidbits of bravado, ingenuity, pluck, and simple humanity that give his work such a piquant flavor." Alan Cochrum

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"The Underground Railroad was … an illegal, clandestine operation; not many involved kept records, and if they did, they used oblique language and gave no names. ... Nonetheless, Bordewich has managed to put together a narrative of several layers, starting with stories of individuals who escaped, the historical context, the economics of slavery, and the lives of some famous abolitionists." Donald D. Breed

Lancaster New Era 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Bordewich is a journalist, not a professional historian, so he uses the record to tell a good story. Dramatic tales about the clandestine network of individuals and groups operating underground stations spark his narrative." Jack Brubaker

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Bordewich’s story is a discovery of scores of people whose names are scarce or nonexistent in history books but whose remarkable actions, taken together, would shape the face of the nation." Austin Merrill

Critical Summary

The Underground Railroad was, by its very nature, a silent, loose-limbed organization. This fog of anonymity may explain why, despite its critical role in American history, historians have attempted so few chronicles of it. Bordewich, author of My Mother’s Ghost (2000) and Killing the White Man’s Indian (1997), was undeterred by the challenge. If he can’t rescue all names from anonymity, he succeeds in laying bare the heroic spirit of the escapees’ struggle. He also breaks "the hard sheen of myth" and shows how some of the movement’s white leaders embraced racial equality. Critics applaud the thrilling depictions of escapes and the furtive strategies in use along the railroad. Even more, they appreciate how he places the railroad in context as the fountainhead for the abolitionist movement and, further down the road, the civil rights movement.

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