The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead. New York: Doubleday, 2016.
Summary: A fictional narrative of a Georgia slave, Cora, who with another slave escapes the plantation, and through a series of harrowing experiences, and the existence of an actual underground railroad with trains and engineers, escapes to the North.
The Underground Railroad has received critical acclaim, winning a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and being chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. This is a very good book, portraying the brutal realities of Antebellum slavery on cotton plantations, the brutalities of slave owners, overseers, patrollers and night riders, and slave hunters. The character of Ridgeway, the slave hunter, is among the great evil characters of fiction. The protagonist, Cora, is a resilient, even fiercely determined character who will murder more than on of her potential captors, even while both angered and motivated by her mother Mabel, who escaped while she was a little girl and never was caught.
Cora agrees to escape the Randall Plantation with Caesar when Terrence Randall, a tyrant, takes over for his deceased brother. Caesar has learned from a sympathetic merchant of an underground railroad that will take slaves to freedom. At the last minute, another slave, Lovey, joins in, but is soon captured while Caesar and Cora, who fatally bludgeons a young man attempts to hold her, escape and contact the station master. What they find is an underground railroad that is no metaphor but a vast subterranean rail network with rails, trains, and engineers, built by those engaged in the fight against slavery.
Their flight takes them to South Carolina, where they hide under assumed names in an “enlightened” town educating them for citizen, but with underlying sinister motives. Ridgeway shows up and Cora escapes, but Caesar is taken. Cora arrives unexpected at a closed down station in a North Carolina town on a freedom crusade of lynchings and house searches. Reluctantly, Martin and Ethel Wells shelter her, running a terrible risk. In the end Ridgeway finds her and takes her into Tennessee, where she is rescued by Royal, a militant version of Harriet Tubman. One of Ridgeway’s men is killed, Ridgeway bound and left to die, and they escape to a utopian Freedom Farm in Indiana. But will they be safe even here?
The plot is interrupted by “flashbacks” that fill in content, but felt like an interruption. But the feature that worked the least for me was the railroad. This aspect of the book had a magical realism feel, and just didn’t work for me, but then I’ve never been a fan of this technique/genre. It seems that the main function of the railroad was to get Cora to the next scene of action, where the real interest and the strength of this narrative lay. We see the courage of station masters, to be sure, but the actual journey, the risks run by slaves, and in many cases, rescuers like Tubman seemed to be minimized, even though the title suggests a focus on the railroad. I also found the decisions to stay in South Carolina, and later Indiana, somewhat implausible when all slaves knew their only chance of safety, especially from figures like Ridgeway, was Canada. I might have liked some documentation of sources for the portrayals slave conditions and race hatred, and some comment on what was based on fact, along the lines of what Stowe did in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
All in all, the plotline, strong characters, and portrayal of slavery and race hatred make this a good and important work. I think it could be more powerful if it portrayed the efforts of the historical underground railroad. But the portrayal of slavery and racism in this book is important to our nation conversation. To meaningfully, say “never again” we must understand to what we are saying “never again.”