When most kids first hear about the Underground Railroad, they picture just that: train tracks that ran underground, and (in this context) ferried slaves to safety during a truly abhorrent period of American history. Colson Whitehead is the first writer – as far as I know – to take that childish notion and turn it into literary fiction. The Underground Railroad is a semi-speculative alternative history of the antebellum South, one that Barack Obama called “terrific” and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017.
Before we go any further, I need to make something clear: I’m an Australian girl with no more than the general gist of American history. I have absolutely no authority when it comes to accounts of the slave trade in the States, and no more knowledge than what I’ve gleaned here and there (we didn’t even cover it in school, really). All I’ve done is read this book, and I’m going to tell you what I think of it – take that with as many grains of salt as you deem necessary.
So, back in 2000, baby Whitehead has this idea to write a book about a literal underground railroad… but he chickens out. He doesn’t think he’s got the writing chops to pull it off. Still, the idea festers away in the darkest recesses of his brain, for over a decade. Finally, with five other novels to his name, he sets about writing it, The Underground Railroad.
This process entailed the kind of research that makes you exhausted just to think about: difficult and time consuming. Whitehead spent longer than you or I care to imagine working his way through the oral history archives (over two thousand personal accounts of slavery collected by the Federal Writers’ Project back in the ’30s), and traditional slave testimonies. To his credit, Whitehead doesn’t drown the reader in detail; he employs the ol’ iceberg theory of writing (nine-tenths below the surface) in The Underground Railroad to great effect. The story has the ring of authenticity, without straying into showing-off territory.
The central character, Cora, is born into slavery on a plantation in Georgia. When she is alarmingly young, her mother – Mabel – escapes, without her, leaving her to fend for herself. Obviously, that engenders some very complicated feelings in Cora, pride that her mother was able to extricate herself on the one hand (she was never caught, not even by the notorious slave-catcher Ridgeway), but resentment at being abandoned on the other. Fair enough, wouldn’t you say?
Cora doesn’t harbour any particular aspirations to escape herself although, as she says: “Every slave thinks about it. In the morning and in the afternoon and in the night. Dreaming of it. Every dream a dream of escape even when it didn’t look like it.” Life on the plantation is so horrific that it’s impossible not to dream of escape, but at the same time the odds seem insurmountable (Mabel is the only slave who’s ever pulled it off).
Enter Caesar: a fellow slave, a young man, who approaches Cora and asks her to accompany him on his escape attempt. He seems to view her as some kind of lucky charm, given her mother’s success. Cora rebuffs him at first, but the idea takes root, and grows in her until it seems inevitable. This is how she finds herself swept into the clandestine operation of the underground railroad. In Whitehead’s telling, it’s no metaphor: it has tracks, and stations, and conductors, and timetables. Escaping by the narrowest of margins, Cora and Ceasar board a train and find themselves…
… in South Carolina. And North Carolina. And Tennessee, and Indiana, and further beyond. Her journey is harrowing (to say the least) and each stop on the railroad presents a different manifestation of the reality (and the legacy) of slavery in America. In between each of these stations, Whitehead gives the reader a digression, a back-story of people Cora encounters. At first, they might appear only tangential to the story, but they all piece together to give a more complete picture of what Cora – and at least sixty million others – had to face.
From page one, The Underground Railroad depicts the gruesome realities of the slave trade and enslaved lives. Every chapter reveals some new horror. So much of what happens to Cora is gut-churningly awful, and yet… it’s compelling, and propulsive. The Underground Railroad is not a light or easy read, but it’s unputdownable all the same. That’s a very weird combination, and not one I’ve encountered often in my literary sojourns. I read a review on The Guardian that described it as “beautifully written and painful to read”, which pretty much sums it up.
When Whitehead was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for this book, the committee cited the “smart melding of realism and allegory that combines the violence of slavery and the drama of escape that speaks to contemporary America”. They weren’t the only ones who were impressed; The Underground Railroad also won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the 2017 Andrew Carneige Medal for Excellence. Sometimes, books that rack up awards are overlooked or discounted by the wider public, written off as too lofty or literary to be decipherable by regular humans, but The Underground Railroad hit all the best-seller lists.
Not to be basic about it, but I’m a fan. A huge fan. It feels twisted to have so thoroughly enjoyed and relished a book about such a terrible subject, but I’ll chalk that up to Whitehead’s talent rather than any defect in my own character. I predict The Underground Railroad will go on to join the canon of classic works about American slavery, alongside Beloved and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
My favourite Amazon reviews of The Underground Railroad:
- “I don’t think this book gives an factual account of what the Underground Railroad was. I also question whether or not a person could have gone through what Cora did and survived!?!” – Betty
- “The fake railroad just didn’t work for me.” – AMO1234
- “This is perfect background for these times of racial conflict. The south was not all mansions and mint juleps.” – Kindle Customer
- “Poorly written and how do I say, trite. Fails as science fiction, and fails at historical fiction. An actual subterranean interstate railway system that is un-noticed by authorities. Who built it? How did they do it un-noticed? No nuance. A poor imitation of Forest Gump, focused on senseless torture and atrocities. The Pulitzer committee should be ashamed. To summarize, I did not like it.” – M. Konikoff
- “Since when do cabbages grow on vines.
My worry is that some people may think this is a nonfiction book.” – Amazon Customer