“Cora didn’t know what optimistic meant. She asked the other girls that night if they were familiar with the word. None of them had heard it before. She decided that it meant trying.” – Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead’s latest novel – winner of the National Book Award – has made the headlines for the past few months due primarily to the author’s renown and talent, but also for the ingenuity of its premise. Elegant, simple, imaginative. After finishing The Underground Railroad, it is hard to envision a History where such a thing did not exist. Here it is: what if, instead of being a metaphor for a secretive trail of abolitionist agents leading to freedom, the underground railroad was… well exactly what it’s supposed to be? A railroad. Underground. Mind blown.
In 19th century America, still in the bloody throes of slavery, a young slave girl is given an opportunity. A chance not given to many slaves at the time, escape. Then again, on the incredibly violent Randall farm, escape is not simply about taking a chance. Slaves considering absconding must keep Terrance Randall’s vengefulness and cruelty in mind. A man such as him does not take kindly to runaways. He will not relent until they are brought back to him, begging. He makes examples of brave fools. And he takes pleasure in it too. When Caesar comes looking for Cora and offers her a glimpse of freedom, she must muster all the courage and stubbornness left in her to join him. Her mother was a runaway before her – the only one who ever slipped Randall’s men. She ran to freedom, leaving Cora behind to the sufferings of plantation life. For the other slaves, Cora is both cursed and lucky. A rabbit’s foot. And like her mother, Cora ran.
For a long time there had been rumors of secret agents helping slaves make their way to freedom. Whispers in the night and hopeful rumors. But when the cat o’ nine tails hisses in the stifling hot air, hope is only a distant notion. Spurred by fear and determination, Cora and Caesar plunge into the swamps and make for the North. They quickly learn that the country is vast, and dangerous for runaway slaves. How will they ever make it to freedom? Boston? Maine? Canada?
The underground railroad, then, becomes their only chance at surviving America. With the railroad agents’ help, Cora and Caesar make their way up through the southern states, discovering the extensive reach of slavery, cruelty and misery. Yet during this harrowing journey, Cora will also discover hope for the first time. There are people out in the world, good people, kind people, spirited people. She hopes, but every time she lets herself hope too much, the claws of Terrance Randall creep up on her in the form of the famous slave catcher Ridgeway.
Can a runaway ever truly be free? In the eyes of the law, in the eyes of the others, in her own mind… will she always be a slave?
1. As stated in the first few sentences, and like the rest of the literary universe, we found Whitehead’s premise is genius and moving. The simplicity of changing a mere metaphor into a literal, working railroad turns Cora’s story into something incredibly complex and original. Would it have been possible? Would it have worked? These questions never haunt the reader throughout the novel. It as if the underground railroad existed and was an immovable part of American History.
2. The Underground Railroad was our first Colson Whitehead novel – though we now plan to add more of his books to our list – and we discovered a fascinating author. His vocabulary, especially, amazed us by its variety, efficiency and beauty. Few authors can make flowering prose so elegantly simple to read without crossing the border into eye-rolling territory. There is no surprise in this novel’s critical and popular success, it is a work of art.
3. Beyond his language, the author also displayed an impressive amount of objectivism in his story. Slavery, racism, segregation; there is no doubt in the modern man’s mind that these stand amongst the greatest blights in human History. How can one excuse a slaver, a slave-catcher, a mob of maddened fanatics? Whitehead does this effortlessly. His characters, both white and black, slave and freeman, are so developed that we see their strengths as well as their greatest flaws. Most of the characters’ actions are understandable. Yes, even the unspeakably evil ones. When the reader finds himself feeling – almost – sorry for Ridgeway, a mercenary slave-catcher, then the author is doing something right.
4. Sugarcoating must not be in Colson Whitehead’s infinite list of vocabulary. The grit of slavery, the guiltless barbarism and the continual shattering of hope is brilliantly described. There is blood, there is agony, there is death. There are things worse than death. Pain is not always physical. Throughout The Underground Railroad, the reader is faced with constant reminders of the bottomless misery of slave life – though misery in this novel is not limited to colored men and women. Despite this exhibition of violence, there is decency and poetry in how Whitehead portrays it. Euphemisms are used sparsely, but with purpose. The descriptions of horror never feel needless, only true.
5. Clocking in at just over 300 pages, The Underground Railroad is a perfect read. Every page is useful, the author employs ellipses and flashbacks (see point 1 below) often to move the story along and we see many different things in a short span of pages. Cora moves from state to state, having varying experiences with freedom. Where many authors would have let their ego take them into the bountiful realm of door-stoppers, Whitehead – or his editor – knew what to leave and what to cut. Thanks to this, the story is complete and satisfying.
1. In contrast with the appreciable size, vocabulary and plot of The Underground Railroad, the structure is jarring and strange. The chapters are divided either into a geographical location or a character’s point-of-view, and are sometimes hundreds of pages long or just a few. It never feels as if there is a logic to it, or we simply did not grasp it. The ellipses and flashbacks, although extremely useful, are nestled in awkward places of the novel. We jump forward or back, and then forward again with no true indications as to why. Sometimes we discover a character’s complete fate many pages after a short sentence telling us about their death. The structure therefore does not make for a smooth read. There is rarely a logical place to stop, few cliffhangers to keep the reader going and it is harder to dive back into The Underground Railroad because of this. Our recommendation : curl up by the fireplace on a rainy Sunday afternoon and read it in a single go. That’s the way reading should be done anyway…
2. Like the issues with structure, the issue we had with History is perhaps one of the constraints Whitehead had in order to make the story fast-paced and the novel short. As Cora travels through America, we learn little or nothing about what is happening in the country. There are very few indications as to a time-period (scattered dates, some historical references, general knowledge) and though we know this is pre-Civil War, it is still troublesome at times. On her journey, Cora encounters many different things; hospitals specializing in sterilization surgery for slaves, museums depicting scenes of slave life, mass printing and the availability of slave-written literature… The list goes on and though these things may have existed in early 19th-century southern states, it never feels accurate. We realized, maybe too late, that The Underground Railroad is, obviously some might say, a historical fiction, and therefore Whitehead may have taken liberties with History in the broader sense. Read as a historical fiction, there is no issue whatsoever.