The Underground Railroad

by Colson Whitehead

Is one permitted to enjoy a book on slavery?  I can honestly say that I did enjoy reading this; the character of Cora is so compelling and her adventures so fascinating.  She is lively and determined, and meets her often appalling fate at every turn of the way with courage and spirit.  The story, too – though unbelievable in the many successful escapes that Cora achieves – is fast-moving, and it is easy to be swept along, as Cora herself is by her adventures.

I read this book immediately after Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger, and I did wonder whether two books about slavery was a bit of overkill.  But the two books are very different.  Unsworth’s book is set a century before Whitehead’s, and deals with the Atlantic slave trade rather than life on the plantation (and in other environments)within North America.  The language, too, is different.  In Sacred Hunger much use is made of an English style reminiscent of 18th century language – especially in the speech.  Annoyingly (to me at least) the second part of this novel makes heavy use of Pidgin.  The Underground Railroad uses good, eminently readable modern English.  Even if Pidgin was spoken on the plantation, it is not used in dialogue and the reader is only vaguely aware that the slaves have received less (= no) education than the white people.

Whitehead’s book reminded me more than anything of Stephen King’s novel The Stand, which I read about a year ago. Like this book, that one is essentially a road trip, peppered with adventures, clear-cut goodies and baddies and the improbable survival of the protagonist through all the brushes with death they encounter along the way.

I have also read Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl written by Herself, on which this novel draws.  That book too was barely believable, and yet one has to assume that it is based in fact (and certainly this is how it is put across).  The brutality is just so extreme.  In The Underground Railroad, Cora is raised on and later escapes from a particularly brutal plantation in Georgia.  She experiences a settled life in a ‘model’ community in South Carolina, where black and white populations live alongside each other, apparently tolerant although each has its own separate realm.  But even here, the whites have their own agenda, the slavecatchers are still after her, and Cora migrates again.  This time she arrives in North Carolina, where a recently imposed extreme regime of racial persecution and murder leaves both Cora and her hosts facing death if she is discovered, hiding in a cramped attic space.  Captured (but not murdered), transported through a bleak Tennessee landscape devastated by wildfire and yellow fever, Cora escapes again, rescued by members of the underground railroad (other members of which have assisted her along the way).  She is taken to the idyllic Valentine farm in Indiana, managed and worked by black people in a surrounding area of white settlers.  The idyll cannot last; a white posse attacks the Valentine residents and Cora is recaptured by her nemesis, the evil slavecatcher Ridgeway.

Cora’s successive adventures and narrow escapes are reminiscent also of the best adventure novels – echoes of The Count of Monte Cristo.  Unlike the Count, she does not reinvent herself but knows herself well enough to fit into each new environment with its many constraints.

Aside from the successive steps in the narrative – one can hardly call them twists and turns, for though they are sometimes unexpected, the help the sequential story along – there is one great twist underlying the whole story.  Whitehead has imagined what the metaphor of an underground railroad would look like if taken literally.  He has the escapees descending through cellar trapdoors onto sometimes dank, sometimes opulent platforms and boarding a variety of real trains that travel through tunnels to the next destination.

At first, I found this translating of the railroad metaphor into reality an unnecessary complication in the story; indeed it rather tended to destroy, for me, the believability of the rest of the novel.  But on reflection I realised that, as a plot device, it enables the story as imagined by the author.  He is able to depict the various environments Cora finds herself in, without taking up narrative space depicting how she got there.  Each state she passes through has its own unique take on the question of race and how (or whether) the black and white populations should coexist.  That one escaped slave should experience all this is unbelievable – but the ‘real’ underground railroad allows us to suspend disbelief and imagine “what if…?”.

I did enjoy this book, and feel encouraged to explore the background and work out just how much of Cora’s experience is based on reality.  Also to read more about the underground railroad as really implemented.