The Underground Railroad

underground-railroadFor an embarrassingly long time, I thought the Underground Railroad was an actual railroad, at least partly underground. A secret train to freedom is an image than can easily catch a child’s imagination—especially when that child hasn’t been around trains enough to know that they’re noisy and difficult to hide. But the image is potent enough that Colson Whitehead uses it in his new novel about an enslaved woman named Cora who journeys north from Georgia, searching for freedom.

I was, at first, a little skeptical about Whitehead’s idea of making the Underground Railroad literal, rather than telling a story about the real thing. But this story isn’t a realistic one. Cora doesn’t literally journey north in the way an actual fleeing slave would. Instead, she is transported from one land to another, each with its own set of rules and hazards. The railroad is a portal. The novel isn’t about the railroad or even about Cora’s escape. To me, it seems to me about the many forms of enslavement and prejudice African Americans have experienced throughout U.S. history.

The book starts out feeling like a typical slave narrative, upsetting and cruel. Cora lives on a cotton plantation in Georgia and she experiences or witnesses many of the indignities and torments of slave life. Her mother escaped when Cora was a child, leaving her on her own. When a fellow slave, Caesar, suggests escape and tells her he knows someone who can put them on the underground railroad to the north, she agrees to go.

The first stop is South Carolina, where Cora and Caesar find something than looks a lot like freedom. They’re given paid employment and homes and freedom of movement. But the citizens of this seemingly free place are subject to medical tests, similar to the Tuskegee experiments. Later, in another place, Cora witnesses lynchings and genocide, all while hidden in a tiny attic space. Freedom, she learns, is complex:

Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. Here, she was fee of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.

One of the things I like about Whitehead’s approach is that it doesn’t confine American racism to slavery days. Technically, the entirety of the novel is set before Emancipation, but the fantastic railroad makes Cora’s journey feel like time travel, and her pain continues across centuries. I think it’s easy for white Americans to write off racism as something from the past, from “back then,” and to believe that making laws against it makes it disappear.

When Cora is first placed on the train that takes her away from Georgia, she’s told, “Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.” Of course, all she can see is darkness. The book as a whole is not unremittingly grim, but it does make us see the darkness on the journey through our history.

I received an egalley of this book for review consideration via Edelweiss.

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19 Responses to The Underground Railroad

  1. Jeanne says:

    Hmm. Sounds like a good concept, but a very odd one. Sometimes the odd perspective is what it takes to get ideas that aren’t easy to convey, though.

  2. I agree with Jeanne. This sounds like a novel novel approach to writing about slavery in the United States. There have been many, many books trying to farm the same old turf in every subject like this one that you want to name, but when someone comes along who can enliven the discussion so that people don’t get inured to the importance of the subject (and sadly enough, people do get tired even of important subject like this one), we owe them an incalculable debt. I hope I get a chance to read this book. Thank you for your review.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s sad to say it, but a straightforward narrative might have been dull. The grand tour approach (I’ve seen it compared to Gulliver’s Travels) meant he could tackle so much more.

  3. Jenny says:

    This sounds really interesting to me. I’ve never read anything by Whitehead and I wonder if this would be a good place to start.

  4. Stefanie says:

    Oh boy! I just got this from the library and looking forward to diving in very much!

  5. Terrific review! Whitehead is such an original writer. I’ve read three of his books (John Henry Days, The Intuitionist, and Sag Harbor) and from what I understand, this may be his best yet. I have a copy and plan to read it before the end of the year.

  6. Michelle says:

    I loved this one, and I love your review. Your thought that the railroad is a portal and the trips Cora takes are across time is particularly impressive, as you manage to convey the mysticism of the novel in an easy-to-understand manner. Love it!

  7. My mother had my sister and me do her a report on Harriet Tubman when I was a wee girl, so I learned on one and the same day that the Underground Railroad existed and that it wasn’t a real railroad. It’s less disillusioning if it happens quickly!

    • Teresa says:

      I can’t even remember how I learned about the Underground Railroad. I know it was mentioned when I was in school, as was Harriet Tubman, but I don’t think we ever discussed the details.

  8. I think I tried “Apex Hides the Hurt,” but couldn’t get into it and have never been interested mCiuch in Whitehead’s novels–although I like the nonfiction he produces sporadically. I should clear my schedule a bit and try this one–sounds like it might need a bit of attention, not like my usual “reading 8 books at one time” MO. Thanks for the review.

    • Teresa says:

      The nice thing about the structure is that it’s sort of episodic, so if you are reading some other books as well, there are natural breaks. I almost only ever read one book at a time, but I still found those breaks helpful as emotional resets.

  9. JaneGS says:

    I’ve heard of this book, but didn’t really know the premise. Now, I have to read it.

    >it seems to me about the many forms of enslavement and prejudice African Americans have experienced throughout U.S. history.

    I don’t think you could get there with a straight up book about the Underground Railroad.

    Great review.

    • Teresa says:

      A straight-up, realistic book wouldn’t have been able to address things like the Tuskegee experiments and Jim Crow-era lynchings the way this did. Stepping out of realism allowed Whitehead to get at some hard truths in our history that were worth including.

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