Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning The Underground Railroad will sit with me for a long time. I’m not sure what my expectations were before digging in, but the result exceeded whatever they had been.
This is a work of historical fiction — more accurately, alt-historical fiction — with a light dose of magical realism. Whitehead animates the legendary human network that was the Underground Railroad into a physical, literal subway system. It’s a subtle but brilliant edit to history and acts as a metaphor for so many things, a book club could have several meetings dissecting and analyzing all the ways in which the Railroad parallels the African-American experience. One character remarks that a train is the ideal way for white folks to see the world, to taste freedom. Ironically, a train is how Black slaves can see the world and taste freedom, but they most do so underground, in the darkness.
The story centers on Cora, a young (the reader is given the impression that she’s in her mid-to-late teens) runaway slave who endures horrific brutality at the hands of the plantation owners, then manages to escape with her friend and fellow slave, Caesar. They’re pursued by the sinister slave catcher, Ridgeway, who’s more driven by the twisted thrill of harming Black slaves than collecting reward money. The Railroad takes Cora and Caesar to multiple stops in the Southern and Midwestern U.S., with each state taking on its own personality and attitude towards slavery. Each time Cora arrives at a Railroad stop, it’s like Dorothy emerging from the front door of the farmhouse and discovering Oz. And, for those who read Baum’s series beyond the one with the munchkins, you know that Oz can be full of dark and terrible things.
One state seems to embrace Black folks with open arms, feigning progressiveness and denouncing slavery. Behind the scenes, however, science and medicine are working against them, yielding a new form of cruelty and enslavement touted as being “for their own good.” Another state advocates extermination of Black people outright, forcing Cora into a hideout that will elicit echoes of Anne Frank’s diary. It’s hard not to believe that Whitehead — who, again, earned a Pulitzer for this novel — created this alternate history without a deliberate intention to hold a mirror up to the white reader. Each spot on the Underground Railroad’s map could very well be a different point on America’s timeline, illustrating the different, horrific ways we subjugated and harmed African-Americans throughout history.
Whitehead is exceptionally gifted with the written word, employing a classic style of literary prose that’s just begging for The Underground Railroad to become assigned reading in high school AP Lit class. My only criticism of this book is its pacing. Whitehead tends to build up a big plot point and then abruptly abandon it to shift gears. He doesn’t advance the story in a linear fashion — it stops and starts, revisits a past event or a secondary character’s background story, then picks up again. In a few years I’d like to reread it now that I have a sense of his pacing and style.
The Underground Railroad is painful and intense, yet my inner plucky optimist kept rooting for Cora every step of the way. I gasped out loud, cried, and cheered for her. Whitehead made her a very real person for me and I was sad to leave her. It’s simply a masterpiece of a book.
[Sidenote: this book also fulfilled my #BookRiotReadHarderChallenge2018 category of an “Oprah’s Book Club” book. See the Challenge details here: https://bookriot.com/2017/12/15/book-riots-2018-read-harder-challenge/%5D