One of the best books I’ve read this year. Colson Whitehead takes readers through some of terrible injustices heaped upon slaves in America.
The Underground Railroad is a well-written mixture of history and magical realism. The violence, racism and murder mean it isn’t light reading but I’m glad I picked up this story.
I did have an ‘umm?!’ moment early on. I’d thought the underground railway was the name given to the safehouses and brave people who’d risked their lives to smuggle slaves to freedom. This book describes literal trains running beneath the earth, causing me to resort to google.
The internet told me I was right first time round – the real underground railroad was a network of places and outstanding people. The physical train isn’t part of history, it’s a clever creation by the story’s author.
Colson Whitehead’s descriptions of the railroad are fantastical. Each station is slightly different, some are tiled, some are panelled and some are rough rock. No one seems sure who created them but it’s probably the same group of people who built major buildings such as The Whitehouse so, yep, made by slaves.
The allegory blurs time and geography to look at the way African-Americans were treated (and makes points that are still relevant today). Each of the places the characters reach through the underground tracks have one thing in common: Former slaves are persecuted. Some areas have lynchings, beatings and angry mobs, others seem comparatively safe but hide sinister experimentation or dangerous neighbours.
Cora is the main character and a slave on a plantation in Georgia. Her life is, well, horrific. Her grandmother is dead and she believes that her mother, Mabel, abandoned her when she was still a child to escape alone to freedom.
Cora does her best to survive. Banished to sleep in a hut with other outcasts, she’s raped by a group of men after defending her claim to a vegetable plot that was worked by her late grandmother.
Brutality, whippings and sexual assault are everyday occurrences. Cora decides it’s better to risk the terrible deaths meted out to runaways than live at the whim of the violent new ‘owner’. She follows her mother’s example and, with a bag of unripe yams and two other slaves, she heads into the swamps surrounding the plantation.
Cora’s search for safety is the main focus, but a few chapters show other perspectives. The author shows how Ajarry, Cora’s late grandmother, was forcefully transported to America. He also follows Ridgeway, a brutal slave catcher with a personal grudge against Cora – her mother was the only escapee he never managed to hunt down. Ridgeway’s cat-and-mouse game with the escaped slaves adds an extra level of danger.
Verdict: I can see why this book won awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. It’s a heavy read but Cora’s story shows the traumatising and brutal impact of slavery. Colson Whitehead’s clever use of fiction draw attentions to real events. Yes, adding a literal train takes a few liberties with history but it’s well worth it.