The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I so enjoyed seeing Colson Whitehead speak at TSU almost a year ago – it seems a little strange it’s taken me this long to get to this one!

The Underground Railroad is compelling, a story with momentum and imagination. I had forgotten that the underground railroad would turn out, in this book, as a literal railroad that runs underground: that was a fun surprise to experience. “Fun” is not precisely the right word for this book, though. It’s about slavery and the quest for freedom; there is little here that is light or fun.

The protagonist is Cora, a young enslaved woman who makes a run for it with a young man, Caesar, who she doesn’t know very well. It begins with a little prefacing history, of Cora’s grandmother and mother before her. Her mother escaped the Georgia plantation where she and Cora were born, never to be seen again. The ghost of that woman hangs over Cora’s decisions and her feelings about those around her.

Cora travels, with and without Caesar, through several states via the underground rails. We see the details of various stations on the railroad: this one beautified and furnished, this one bare, a statement about the hard work required to dig survival out of rock and earth. Cora asks, who built the railroad? And the response: “Who built anything in this country?”

Cora will continue to wonder about the hidden hands who contribute to the quest for a better life, even as that life eludes her in her travels. This is not particularly a story of redemption or of happily-ever-after. Each time Cora survives a brutal and shocking turn of events, she loses those she cares about, and cynically revises her hopes: how stupid (she thinks) she was to think it could get better. The places she gets to know along the way could be viewed as archetypes (remember from Whitehead’s talk that I heard something like this idea): the place where no Black person is suffered to live, where the streets are lined with hanging corpses; the place where life appears secure only on the surface; the place where all can contribute according to their abilities. These steps along the way are instructive. But the book does not necessarily end on a hopeful note.

There’s a bit here of something I watch out for in books like this, historical fiction featuring ordinary or marginalized people: Cora perhaps holds a bit more far-reaching wisdom of the world than someone with her life experience might be expected to have. For example, she observes slave labor replaced by cheap Irish immigrant labor, and muses that as the Irish supply runs out or goes out of fashion, another poor country will send its emigrants to form the next wave. This speculation about the poor countries of the world seems like a lot for a woman who’s lived her life on a Georgia plantation to come up with. It’s a clear temptation, especially with benefit of hindsight, to invest one’s apparently “ordinary” characters with special knowledge and wisdom.

I appreciated the range of characters. Most of the book is told from Cora’s perspective, but short interspersed chapters come from the points of view of secondary characters, including racist white ones. I imagine those chapters in particular might have been hard to right, but also interesting to write, and they enrich the book by complicating things. Not that the evil slavecatcher gets much sympathy; but hearing his inner thoughts makes him more real, more believable, and therefore more frightening. Complication, in literature, is always good.

I believe I expected this book to be magical realism, and I’m not entirely sure that’s my impression after reading it. There’s nothing here (that I noticed) that couldn’t happen in our real and non-magical world. The literal underground railroad would be a feat of engineering and supplies, but not strictly impossible. The good and bad luck (if we can call it that) Cora and others face certainly seems fantastical, but is in line with the well-documented true stories of enslaved people. That said, it was a vibrant, rich way of telling the story of slavery and struggle: one we’ve heard/read before but clearly aren’t done with. The railroad part was fascinating, nicely told. The characters were always intriguing. I think pacing may be the great feat of this book: I scarcely was able to look away once I was in it. Thank you, Colson Whitehead.


Rating: 7 stations.

4 Responses

  1. Sounds like a very worthwhile read. It’s one of those books I had heard about on PBS or The Daily Show perhaps and thought to seek out and then forgot. Thanks for the reminder.

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