Colson Whitehead first learned about the Underground Railroad as a schoolboy and visualized it being like the NYC Metro. That visual is key to his tackling the horrific history of slavery in the US and the attempt of one woman to find freedom in a world that does not see her as human.
Whitehead provides the reader with an all-too-real portrayal of slavery — starting with a short history of Ajarry, the main character Cora’s grandmother, from her enslavement, the Middle Passage, her sale, and eventually claiming a tiny piece of land to grow vegetables on at the Randall plantation.
The bulk of the novel follows Cora, from her own mother leaving her to run away (the only slave from the Randall plantation to do so successfully) and her acquisition of the plot of land to her experience on the plantation. Another slave, Caesar, asks her to run away with him, but she initially refuses. When the brother who runs the half of the plantation she works on dies and the other brother takes over and eyes her for sex, she takes Caesar up on the offer.
Whitehead pulls no punches in the description of the plantation and the suffering of the slaves or the brutality of the owners. Once on the run, the story takes an interesting route. Caesar has connected with the Underground Railroad, and after a tragic run-in with hog-catchers, they arrive at the station. As Whitehead imagined as a boy, the station Cora and Caesar reach is an actual railroad below ground. Significantly, when Cora asked who build it, the answer she receives is the people who build everything. There is still the shadowy network of freedmen, run-aways, and abolitionists, but beneath the safe-house cellar is the entry to a station on the railroad. Throughout the novel, these stations vary from a crudely carved tunnel with a hand operated car to a beautifully tiled station with benches. The trains run irregularly, and their destinations are unknown.
These stations take Cora to other states where she experiences variations on freedom that for the most part, aren’t as free as she imagines. First, she and Caesar end up in South Carolina. They are given new names and new employment. They live in a community where the whites are intent on improving their lot — teaching them to read, providing employment. The reader quickly comes to understand that this is not a real version of South Carolina, but a metaphor. Each state Cora travels to takes some aspect of the racism and forms of bondage blacks have undergone.
Content with this new freedom Cora and Caesar are content to stay, putting off another journey on the railroad. Cora works at a museum diorama that attempts to capture the slave experience, but to Cora, and the contemporary audience it fails to come close and rather becomes more of the stereotyped view of blacks and slavery. Cora learns here of a state-sponsored program to sterilize the former slaves. The sham of her freedom becomes apparent even as the famous slave-hunter, Ridgeway — who failed to find her mother — closes in on her.
Cora’s escape continues, moving from stop to stop, state to state. In each state, she is confronted by various evils that at one point or another have been perpetrated on blacks. That Whitehead formalized the horrors by making the policy in his fictionalized states makes it all the more shocking to remember that such offenses were tolerated unofficially and many were only steps away from being policy in our history.
Whitehead’s novel moves shifts between the contemplative moments of seeming calm and the frantic moments of jeopardy, neither feeling too long or misplaced. With each moment that Cora feels content, we, as Whitehead’s colluders in the narrative, wait for the inevitable doom that hangs ever-present. We know history, so we know there is tragedy lurking, waiting for its moment to take away what little joy the characters find.
Ultimately hopeful, The Underground Railroad is powerful and deserving of all the accolades. Cora’s insights are simple but distil an honest rendering of our past as a nation without coming off as Whitehead preaching. While most of the story is told from Cora’s POV, there are occasional chapters giving us insight into others, including the slave-hunter, Ridgeway. The characters are well-defined and Whitehead delves into the psyche of those impacted by slavery. Never do those who populate Whitehead’s tale come off as simple or stereotyped. Humanity, through the impacts of inhumanity, shines through.
see my reading stats for this book: Reading Stats: The Underground Railroad