Summary: Mabel

This short section recounts what happened to Cora’s mother, Mabel. She runs away one night because she can’t face the ghosts of those killed, sold, or who committed suicide on the Randall plantation anymore. Once in the swamp, she lies down against an island bank and eats a turnip from her garden. Here, she has a brief but profound experience of freedom. Then she decides to go back, holding onto that experience but recognizing her obligation to care for Cora. She barely starts back, however, when she is bitten by a cottonmouth snake. The poison overcomes her and she disappears into the swamp.

Summary: The North

As the Valentine farm is destroyed, Cora is taken by Ridgeway and Homer, though she finally gets her revenge. Cora takes Ridgeway to the underground railroad station below the abandoned house, but as she is descending, she embraces him as if to dance and pulls him down the steps with her. Cora is injured, but Ridgeway is mortally wounded with a deep head wound and two badly broken legs. Cora gets on a handcar and starts pumping away from the station, while Homer tends to the dying Ridgeway, who is still talking about his mythical ideas about America. Cora pumps her way for miles, then walks until she emerges from the tunnel. She walks to a trail where she encounters three covered wagons. Driving the third is an older Black man who says his name is Ollie. Ollie feeds her and invites her to join him, first to St. Louis and then on to California. Cora joins Ollie and the wagon train, wondering about Ollie’s story. 

Analysis: Mabel & The North

In Mabel’s story, Whitehead expands on the theme of the importance of maternal love. Cora spends the book wounded by the belief that Mabel left her but inspired by the example of her escape. In this chapter, Whitehead reveals that while Mabel did run and is a fitting inspiration, she did not truly abandon Cora. After a short journey in the swamp, she turns back, hoping that the story of even a temporary escape from the plantation will one day inspire Cora to run. Mabel’s decision is influenced by the example of Moses, a man made cruel by his vulnerability after his mother was sold away from Randall. Mabel remembers how his mother saved him from dying in early childhood, only to have him become a “monster” after she is gone, and Connelly sees the opportunity to turn Moses into his agent. Although Mabel treasures her moments of freedom, finding the turnip she eats in the swamp sweet despite the marsh water on it, she treasures Cora more. Even though she dies before returning to Randall and Cora, Mabel’s example does inspire her escape. Mabel gives her the inheritance of a belief in the possibility of freedom.

At the start of the final chapter of the book, Whitehead uses a break in his format of escaped slave notices to underscore the argument throughout the book that slavery and the systems that supported it are unjust. Each chapter named for a state begins with a description of an escaped slave modeled after the newspaper ads and posters used in the historical period. As Cora begins the final struggle of her escape, Whitehead varies the pattern, writing a description of Cora that ends with the emphatic declaration that “SHE WAS NEVER PROPERTY.” This notice foreshadows the success of Cora’s journey while undermining the implication that freedom was properly something earned. Although Cora’s strength, intelligence, and determination contribute to her success, in this epigraph Whitehead reminds the reader that freedom should not require virtue. Cora triumphs over an unjust system, but in recognizing her heroic qualities, the novel nevertheless insists freedom should never have been reserved for the heroic.