Beyond the River: the Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad by Ann Hagedorn

In the decades before the American Civil War, in the Northern, so-called "free" states, former slaves could be captured and returned to their "owners", particularly after the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made it a federal crime to interfere with the capture of a slave. Canada, however, refused to return escaped slaves to the United States. Thus, the Underground Railroad evolved: a network of contacts and hiding places for people seeking freedom in Canada.

John Rankin (1783-1886) was a noted abolitionist whose Letters to a brother on the topic of slavery were published to organize abolitionists throughout the North. He lived right on the border of "slave" and "free" states–on the Ohio River between the states of Ohio and Kentucky–in Ripley, Ohio.

A lantern, placed in a window of Rankin's house on a hill overlooking the river, could be seen across the border in Kentucky for miles around. A slave who made it across the river could hide in Rankin's barn, and then disappear into communities of free blacks in the hills of Ohio, on the way to Canada. Rankin's lantern became a beacon for slaves well beyond its visible radius.

If you read a lot of history, like I do, you get jaded about the errors of the past. Self-love demands distance, not empathy. The Self assures itself that it would never have collaborated in the annihilation of Jews, or the slaughter of natives, or the superstitious hysteria of a witch trial. Reading Beyond the River, however, I found myself becoming increasingly uneasy, and at times terrified by the rationalizations of slave owners in America before the American Civil War: it all seemed very familiar and present. The more obvious it became that the institution of slavery was doomed, the more strident and violent the defense of it became, the more harshly slave owners treated their human property, and the more dangerous it became to help slaves escape to freedom.

After reading this book I am struck by a similar pattern in today's "War on Drugs": the more obvious it becomes that Prohibition has failed, the more tightly our leaders cling to it. Drug prohibition may not be the first thing you think of, but I would predict that Hagedorn's writing will induce within you some sort of reflection. What are our blind spots? What injustice do we tolerate? Who are the heroes among us?

This is non-fiction, but it "works" like a novel. Ann Hagedorn centers her work on John Rankin—and in one place, a town on the Ohio River east of Cincinnati, called Ripley. The strong biographical and geographic emphasis give the book the immersive quality of fiction.

In 1999, Ann Hagedorn moved to Ripley, Ohio, the setting for Beyond the River. The author's experience is described in the "Acknowledgments", but even more evident from the descriptive passages of the book itself:

On the hot humid days of an Ohio Valley summer, clouds of mist sometimes hover above the river, their thin white wisps nearly touching the water like arms reaching out from bodies adrift in the air. They haunt the hollows between bluffs and linger for hours in the hills beyond the river—smoke from some primeval time. Early in the morning on one such steamy day in the summer of 1825 ...

Similarly, Hagedorn's familiarity with the documentary sources is not burdensome, but rather enables her to plunge us into the ante-bellum period.

The book is relatively free of tedious abstractions and ideologies: the labels and "isms" of history textbooks. It's not a compendium on any subject, and it assumes you either know American History or are willing to look it up: I sometimes found myself looking up names and events occurring elsewhere, outside of Hagedorn's chosen focus of Rankin and Ripley , Ohio.

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