The Underground Railroad
‘If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America. It was a joke, then, from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.’
The sheer volume of escaped-slave narratives available to the book-buying public ensures that it takes something special to rise above the din. In his sixth novel, The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead takes the sub-genre where no-one has previously, with astonishing results.
Cora is a slave on a Georgia plantation in the 1800s who decides to run alongside her associate Caesar. She follows in the footsteps of her mother, Mabel, who ran years before, leaving Cora to fend for herself. Driven by her hatred of the cruel plantation owners and haunted by her mother’s motives in abandoning her, Cora runs north-east to South Carolina.
Whitehead’s centrepiece is his transformation of the Underground Railroad into physical form. Each station is of different character, as are the various drivers of the engines transporting Cora and Caesar. However, what is at face value a twee idea is given short shrift by the brutality the pair encounter on their bid for freedom. Their footsteps are haunted by the slavecatcher Ridgeway, whose only failure was in not managing to catch Cora’s mother years ago.
This novel’s strength lies in it’s characters. It would have been easy for Whitehead to slip into well-worn stereotypes typical of slave narratives – the innocent runaway, the brave abolitionist ahead of his time. He chooses not to do so, and the results are subsequently more plausible. Readers, quite willing to take a young, pure Cora into their hearts, are shocked by the fact that she is spiky, resentful, and often lacking empathy. She is eventually all the more real and admirable as a result of this. Similarly, Cora’s helpers along the railroad have their motives dissected, from their own racial stereotyping to a hereditary burden reluctantly taken on. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is the character of Ridgeway. Even though he has freed slaves himself, Ridgeway is utterly committed to finding runaways, his not finding Mabel serving as a useful driving force for the narrative. He works so well as an antagonist because his skill lies in working within a larger system; slavery is not his creation, but he has prospered because of it and as such has no motivation to challenge it. His cruelty is not gratuitous, but rather what he considers necessary to subjugate Cora and her friends, horrifying though it is to the reader. It is in Ridgeway that Whitehead delivers his most damning indictment of anti-abolitionist America – complicit, profiteering, and utterly convinced of white superiority.
Needless to say, there is extraordinary cruelty, treated almost incidentally by Whitehead, as it was in the era of the novel. In particular, the horrendous treatment of recaptured runaways is described in a matter-of-fact way, mirroring the transactional nature of the bond between slave and owner. Likewise, Whitehead disposes of characters just as the reader is beginning to bond with them, discouraging any emotional attachment. This has the effect of encouraging the reader to root for Cora even more as she makes her way northwards to what she hopes will be freedom. A superb and sobering read.