The Underground Railroad
By Colson Whitehead
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood – where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor – engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven – but the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.
I really want to talk about Colson Whitehead’s ingenuity in The Underground Railroad. The conceit is simple and explosive – the Underground Railroad is a real railroad built in underground tunnels. This could be its own novel: the creation, the stationmasters, the variety of trains used. When Cora and Caesar decide to run, they take a train without knowing where it will go.
Cora travels the rails several times and her first stop in South Carolina brings a story rooted in history, then quickly subverted into an alternate history with the real trains, into modern times. She is in a city that has twelve-story buildings with elevators. There are modern-seeming hospitals. With just enough information to set the scene, Whitehead makes the city seem like today, despite the hidden atrocities. Unfortunately, those don’t affect the reality of how things are today even as metaphors.
Cora is given a fake name in South Carolina and I want to praise Whitehead’s skill with the names. The section opens with a woman named Bessie leaving her job as a nanny to walk to the dormitory where she lives and deciding what to do with her free weekend, which will most definitely include some classes. As the previous section introduced the slave catcher pursuing Cora and Caesar, I assumed Bessie was a new woman we were meant to learn about. Actually, she’s Cora. And that’s the skillful part. We learn about Bessie and her name is the one used. Then we learn Bessie is Cora and Whitehead seamlessly slips back to calling her Cora even in a city where she’s known as Bessie. It’s so well done. It reminded me of Hilary Mantel’s lack of using the protagonist’s name for a significant portion of the beginning of Wolf Hall. Deceptively simple.
As Cora travels from one landing spot to the next, she finds good fortune and bad. She remembers those who helped her, those who hurt her and those she hurt. She learns how difficult it will be to stay free on her terms. Her internal struggle with fighting to never go back is visceral and complicated. Not that she wants to be a slave again but the cost of freedom is unfortunately so high.
The last sections of the book broke my heart several times. Whitehead periodically includes a section about a character other than Cora. One was about Caesar and when he first saw her on the plantation. Another is about Mabel, Cora’s mother who ran away. We learn the truth about that night although Cora never will. She will always carry the pain of being left behind.
This novel is difficult to read at times but so worth it. If you’re someone who strays away from books that receive a lot of hype, don’t. Believe the hype. It will be worth it.