At the beginning, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead feels like a typical American slave novel (think Beloved, The Polished Hoe, 12 Years a Slave and Roots) with horrifying details of physical and sexual abuse and a particularly evil plantation owner. Whitehead has a surprise in store for us, though, and that’s what makes this novel so original and intriguing.
We’re in 19th century Georgia and Cora, a 15-year old headstrong, black slave whose mother abandoned her at a young age to flee north, is planning her own escape from the cotton plantation where she’s spent all life. Her partner in crime, a fellow slave named Caesar, knows of a way. It is called the Underground Railroad, a network of small underground trains crisscrossing the American southern states, heading north. The Underground Railroad actually existed, not as a physical railroad, as in Whitehead’s book, but as a network of free blacks and white abolitionists who helped black slaves flee to the north.
As Cora emerges from the Underground Railroad after a fraught and dangerous escape, Whitehead throws his first surprise at us:
When they next stepped into the sunlight, they were in South Carolina. She looked up at the skyscraper and reeled, wondering how far she had travelled.
From this point onwards Whitehead suspends time and place. Cora’s experiences encompasses the experiences of black Americans throughout time: torture, assassinations, segregation, eugenics, sexual abuse, forced sterilisation, body snatching, Ku Klux Klan, ridicule, humiliation, the list goes on.
Hot on Cora’s trail is the notorious slave catcher Ridgeway who becomes obsessed with her capture and who, horror film style, keeps cropping up. Whitehead’s storytelling skills will keep you glued to the page while you root for the heroine, wanting her to escape yet another ambush and reach her destination: a society that will leave her to get on with life.
At times, The Underground Railroad reminded me of some of David Mitchell’s writing; seemingly realistic settings where something is slightly amiss. And just like Mitchell, Whitehead lulls you into a feeling of familiarity only to spring some very uncomfortable truths on you.
This book is one of the better books I’ve read this year. Its portrayal of American slavery and post-slavery society is as shocking as it is convincing, yet it has a truly original angle on this well-trodden literary territory. Combined with a roster of truly memorable characters, it makes for a terrific read.
Thanks to Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is published by Fleet, 400 pages.
New York Times Interview with Colson Whitehead