The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead tells the story of a slave called Cora, a cotton picker on a plantation in Georgia. All slaves have a hellish existence lived in fear, but Cora is an outcast even among her fellow Africans, left by her own mother, and she is approaching womanhood where she knows even further sufferings await for her. When a newly arrived slave from Virginia arrives and tells her of his plans to run away, she steps into her mother’s wake to escape to the North.
The underground railroad is a name given to the secret network of operators who helped individually liberate slaves from the south to the north of the United States. This anonymous route of safe houses allowed slaves to escape into the free states and Canada, assisted by abolitionists and allies to the cause. In this extraordinary book, Whitehead reimagines the underground railroad in literal physical form: dilapidated box-car pulled along subterranean tracks by a steam engine, picking up fugitives wherever it can. This is what takes Cora on her journey.
Simply and skilfully Whitehead evokes the horrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era. As Cora’s story drives on, we get asides on other characters and moments of history. In conversations with Cora, history is explained which is instructive to the reader as well as being believable for her character who grew up so isolated and uneducated on the plantation. History is woven through her narrative, from the brutal experience of slave importation to a culture’s self-realisation and identity formation.
“As with everything in the south, it started with cotton. The ruthless engine of cotton required its fuel of African bodies. Crisscrossing the ocean, ships brought bodies to work the land and to breed more bodies.
The pistons of this engine moved without relent. More slaves led to more cotton, which lead to more money to buy more land to farm more cotton. Even with the termination of the slave trade, in less than a generation the numbers were untenable: all those niggers…It was not difficult to imagine the sequence when the slave cast off his chains in pursuit of freedom – and retribution.”
And from alternative character perspectives, a chapter on her grandmother, shipped over from Africa; a chapter on a slave catcher, trying to prove himself to his blacksmith father; a chapter on the wife of an abolitionist, anxious to prove her religious good. These parts are like self-contained stories and their ordering is interesting: for example we don’t understand the latter’s motivations from her perspective until after her final scene in the story. But Cora is the heart and soul of this story. She is as tough as a nut, inscrutable to those around her, but it is this strength that feeds her determination to keep going.
I did have problems with how this story was told, though, and it didn’t help that my edition of the book had distracting typos. There was a lot of telling, rather than showing, and the case of educating the reader through Cora was transparent and tiresome at times. The penultimate chapter left me breathless, and (this won’t make sense unless you’ve read the book) I felt the final chapter was actually unnecessary, overdoing the point. All that said, I thought the final product – a woven tapestry of perspectives and history – was a book well worth reading.
This book is shattering, gripping. The concept of the underground railroad made actual is wondrous, and the narrative is driven with such force by an incredible character with a ferocious will to escape the binds of slavery. The seemingly contradictory front-cover praise for this book is completely correct: it is both dazzling and devastating. It is a meditation on a history you need to know.