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Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

By / December 21, 2016 / no comments

As Cora first boards the Underground Railroad she is told, “Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America”. The bitter joke, of course, is that when you look out from a train underground there is nothing to see but a uniform darkness.

Underground AirlinesWhen I reviewed Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters recently my main complaint was that we only ever see the slave experience from outside. In The Underground Railroad that is emphatically not the case.

The two opening sections of this novel are a tour de force. They detail, in turn, the story of Ajarry, brought from Africa and sold from one owner to the next, and of her granddaughter, Cora, barely into her teens on a plantation in mid-nineteenth century Georgia. What is so impressive about these passages is that Whitehead, for the most part, does not dwell on the grotesque violence and cruelties of slavery, and yet every sentence evokes a persistent sense of horror. Even the relatively happy moments – Cora tending the tiny patch of ground she has made into a vegetable plot, an old slave arbitrarily announcing that this is his birthday and so all the plantation slaves join in celebrating the event – even these somehow are overwhelmed by unhappiness. There is no joy here, but there is the pretence of joy, and for the slaves that has to suffice. Yet even this is subject to the arbitrary whims of the owners and overseers.

For Cora, life is particularly hard. Her mother, Mabel, ran away when Cora was only small, leaving the child behind. Since even the famed and ruthless slavecatcher Ridgeway could not find her and bring her back, it is assumed that she made good her escape. In fact, we discover later, she was bitten by a snake and drowned in a swamp her first night away from the plantation, but the myth of her successful escape is enough. For Cora, however, a child without defenders abandoned in slavery while her mother enjoys freedom, it is particularly bitter. When, at 15, she seizes her own opportunity to escape, her primary motivation is to find and punish her mother.

The Underground Railroad (National Book Award Winner) (Oprah's Book Club): A NovelAnd it is at this point that The Underground Railroad stops being a realist historical novel about slavery in the deep South and becomes something altogether less readily definable: part alternate history (or, rather, a series of alternate histories), part phantasmagoria, part allegory. Because when Cora and her fellow runaway, Caesar, contact the Underground Railroad they find not the loose affiliation of free blacks and sympathetic whites who helped to pass runaways from safe house to safe house until they reached the relative security of the North, but an actual underground railroad. The steam trains familiar from so many Western movies here run in impossible tunnels, obeying some sort of timetable although where they are heading is never known.

The moment Cora climbs aboard that first train she embarks on a journey that seemingly never once leaves the nineteenth century, yet never once encounters that century exactly as we recognise it from our histories. Rather, each stop along the way represents another aspect of the black experience in America, another glimpse into the uniform darkness of the American soul.

The Underground Railroad first takes her to South Carolina where everything seems sunny: escaped slaves are taken in, housed in pleasant dormitories, given work. But the work Cora gets is as a living exhibit in a museum, where she acts out a false image of slave life (a colonialist experience played out in real life by Ishi in California and by Nubians in Paris among many others). She also discovers a plot to sterilise black women. When the slavecatcher Ridgeway shows up hunting her, she decides it is time to move on, only to find herself in North Carolina. Here slavery has been abolished by the simple expedient of employing cheap Irish labourers, but this has given them an opportunity to eliminate blacks altogether. A Ku Klux Klan-like body of “regulators” round up any blacks so careless as to be found anywhere in the state, free or slave it doesn’t matter, and they are lynched as a public entertainment at regular Friday Festivals. The bodies are then left hanging from the trees along the so-called Freedom Trail, a disturbing echo of the lynchings that happened throughout the South during the early years of the twentieth century.

Cora escapes only because she is captured by Ridgeway, but their route takes them through Tennessee, a blighted land blackened by fire or ravaged by plague, as if nature itself is reacting to the horrors on show. Finally she reaches the free state of Indiana where she settles on a successful farm run by and for blacks, but even here white neighbours look on with jealousy and malice. Always, the novel tells us, the black experience is one of moving on with hope but no great expectation, while the perverse past is ever inescapable.

The Underground Railroad has already (and deservedly) won a major literary award in America; frankly, I think it will be an injustice if it does not also pick up a major science fiction or fantasy award. The book is profound and moving, a haunting account of the pervasiveness of injustice. It is beautifully written, a work that will, I suspect, linger long in the memory, and it uses the fantastic – the literalised underground railroad, the alternate realities encountered along the way – as a novel and necessary way to tell the story. This is a major work, you have to read it.

Buy this book on Amazon.

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