Summary and Analysis Chapter 8

 

Tennessee

Summary

Having been captured by Ridgeway, Cora now travels in a wagon with Ridgeway and two of his cronies, Boseman and Homer. Boseman is the prototypical slave catcher, with a fondness for violence. Homer is a small black boy about 10 years old, who Ridgeway bought as a slave and freed fourteen hours later. Homer refused to leave Ridgeway despite being freed, and he works alongside the slave catcher, chaining himself to their wagon each night before he falls asleep.

The group does not return Cora directly to Georgia; Ridgeway has been commissioned by another Georgia slaveholder to capture an escaped slave rumored to be living free in Missouri. Ridgeway hopes to bring both slaves back to Georgia together. This journey takes them all into Tennessee. Cora tries twice to run away but is caught both times and earns even more chains.

Along the way, Ridgeway catches another runaway named Jasper, who travels with them for four days. Jasper sings incessantly despite Ridgeway’s threats and orders to stop. Eventually Ridgeway stops the wagon and shoots Jasper in the face, splattering Cora with his blood. Ridgeway explains that the money he planned to make for delivering Jasper back to his plantation isn’t worth the irritation of Jasper’s singing. Homer checks their financial books and confirms that Ridgeway’s calculations are correct.

Most of the towns they drive through in Tennessee have been devastated by natural disasters: a massive fire and a cholera outbreak. During their travels, Ridgeway tells Cora the fate of both Lovey and Caesar. Lovey was returned to the Randall plantation, where she was hanged and impaled. Caesar was jailed in South Carolina and then torn to pieces by an angry mob after rumors spread that he was responsible for the death of a white boy. Ridgeway delights in telling these stories to Cora, enjoying her distress. And yet he also insists that he and Cora are much alike: Cora killed a white boy and feels no guilt; Ridgeway feels no guilt for the slaves he kills. Both of them, he says, are merely following their survival instincts.

Ridgeway stops in one town to buy a new dress for Cora, and Cora sees a young black man nod at her. That night, Boseman undoes Cora’s chains in order to rape her. Ridgeway catches Boseman in the act and begins fighting with him. While Cora is unchained, the young black man who noticed her earlier and two others appear armed with guns and knives. In the ensuing fight, Boseman is killed, and Cora’s rescuers chain Ridgeway and Homer to the wagon. Before escaping with the men, Cora kicks Ridgeway in the face three times.

Analysis

Ridgeway’s dehumanization of slaves is evident in a number of ways in this chapter. He takes great pleasure in recounting the gruesome deaths of Lovey and Caesar to Cora. When he refers to both them and other fugitive slaves, he uses the impersonal pronoun “it” instead of “he” or “she” as if runaways are merely missing objects needing to be returned. When he shoots Jasper only because he is irritated by the man’s singing, he responds to his cronies’ horror by calculating the financial loss. Based on the amount of money he would have received for delivering Jasper, he argues, divided by the amount of time he would need to travel with the man, the constant irritation isn’t worth a slight loss in revenue. His sidekick Homer double-checks the books and confirms Ridgeway’s calculation with an equally cold, “He’s right.” Neither of them factors Jasper’s humanity in to the equation.

Although it would be simpler to cast Ridgeway as a sociopath with no kindness, his character is more complex. Ridgeway is not always on the side of the slavers and against the slaves. He is no friend of Terrance Randall, hating the man for some of the same reasons Cora hates him. And he shows surprising kindness to Homer, not only setting him free but also befriending him in a near fatherly way. Ridgeway makes his choices not out of an intentional desire to be good or evil but based on his own whim or convenience. In this sense, he is not so unlike the Wellses, or even Cora herself.

The drive through Tennessee gives Cora an opportunity to reflect on American ethics at the national level, ethics that are outside of her control or the control of any person she has encountered. The territory they are traveling through, Ridgeway tells her, used to belong to the Cherokee Indians, who were expelled along what is now remembered as the Trail of Tears. Ridgeway introduces Cora to the term “Manifest Destiny,” the idea that white people must claim what is “rightfully” theirs by putting Native Americans and Africans in “their proper places.” None of the white people now living in Tennessee are directly responsible for the fact that their land was stolen from Cherokees, but they are all collectively participating in the American project of displacing the land’s original inhabitants.

Because many of the towns that they drive through have been devastated by natural disasters—a massive fire has destroyed several towns, and a cholera outbreak has killed the inhabitants of several others—Cora finds herself thinking that perhaps these white people have gotten what they deserved. But if these people are suffering because they deserve it, Cora wonders, how is she to make sense of her own suffering—does she deserve it? Boseman and Ridgeway get into a similar argument with each other. When they see the devastation from the fire, Boseman declares that the victims “must have done something to make God angry.” But Ridgeway credits nature: “Just a spark that got away is all.” In her own internal debate, Cora seems to side with Ridgeway, concluding, “Tennessee’s disasters were the fruit of indifferent nature, without connection to the crimes of the homesteaders. To how the Cherokee had lived their lives. Just a spark that got away.” Unlike divine judgment, nature’s judgment is exacted on everyone equally, regardless of their merit.



 
 
 
 
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