The Underground Railroad is one of those books that I’ve been wanting to read since it’s publication in 2016, but sadly never quite got around to until my book group chose to read it in September. Given all the hype surrounding it, I was wondering whether it would live up to my expectations, and I think that I was a surprised to enjoy it as much as I did.
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. All the slaves lead a hellish existence, but Cora has it worse than most; she is an outcast even among her fellow Africans and she is approaching womanhood, where it is clear even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North.
In Whitehead’s razor-sharp imagining of the antebellum South, the Underground Railroad has assumed a physical form: a dilapidated box car pulled along subterranean tracks by a steam locomotive, picking up fugitives wherever it can. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But its placid surface masks an infernal scheme designed for its unknowing black inhabitants. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher sent to find Cora, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
At each stop on her journey, Cora encounters a different world. As Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once the story of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shatteringly powerful meditation on history.
The Underground Railroad isn’t a new story, and there are plenty of novels covering slavery, the horrors faced on the plantations, and what came of those who dared to run. But whilst it’s not new, it doesn’t make it any less important, and slavery, its abolition in the mid-nineteenth century and what came after had far reaching affects that can still be felt today. I personally felt that this was one of the better examples of a novel tackling this difficult subject, and I particularly loved that the “underground railroad” – a term used to denote the covert movement of slaves and those that helped them – became a physical entity in the novel.
Whitehead’s portrayal of plantations and the lives of slaves comes across as being incredibly accurate, and Whitehead successfully captures the horror of how they lived and how they were treated.
A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality.
One element that I thought that Whitehead did particularly well was in avoiding trivialising what happens to Cora. Much of it is expected, both by the reader and by Cora herself, and so it would be extremely easy to not dwell on it, and to have Cora accept her circumstances and move on. Except that, expected or not, it would have a lasting effect on a person, and without labouring the point, Whitehead portrays this extremely well. Similarly, I thought that there were subtle elements to the novel that showcased what life was like – for example, the way in which Ridgeway referring to those he rounded up as “it” rather than he or she. I found this to be subtle yet shocking when I picked up on it, and felt angry at the dehumanisation of these individuals.
I also liked the characterisation in the novel. Cora is a particularly strong and bright individual, and is always wary of becoming too lax, even (particularly) when things seem to be going well. For entirely different reasons, I also thought that Ridgeway was brilliantly portrayed. Ridgeway chases Cora with a persistence bordering on obsession, likely because her mother was the one slave that escaped him when she ran years before. Yet he also comes across as being somewhat atypical, and whilst unpleasant, his multi-faceted character is an interesting one.
The Underground Railroad does jump around in time a little, but I felt that this was well done, and offered a sense of suspense and unease at what may be coming next. And it’s not all doom and gloom – there is an element of hope offered. This is a brilliantly written novel that is easy to read despite some of the subject matter, and it’s one that will stay me for a long time to come.
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐