The Underground Railroad
The calendar year hasn’t even slipped into September, and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is already being talked about as the book of the year.
Oprah Winfrey chose it for her Book Club, the publisher shipped it out early after that happy news, and the New York Times published a long excerpt.
So does it live up to the hype? Yes, and that shouldn’t be a surprise. Whitehead has always been a smart, inventive, versatile writer, and his premise immediately demands your attention: What if the Underground Railroad were literally a working railroad, tracks buried deep beneath the plantations and the swamps and the fields and the towns, carrying escaped slaves northward?
Whitehead blends fact and fiction seamlessly in this story about Cora, a young woman enslaved on a Georgia cotton plantation who makes the bold decision to join another slave, Caesar, in an attempt to escape.
Escape, it seems, is in Cora’s blood. Not for her grandmother Ajarry, who lived out her life on the Randall plantation after being kidnapped from her African village. But Cora’s mother, Mabel, fled when Cora was a girl, and she never returned. Mabel is a myth, a legend: the one who got away.
Cora hasn’t forgiven her mother for the abandonment, but she can’t help but learn Mabel’s lesson. When life on the plantation takes a turn for the worse — a horror that seems impossible and yet isn’t — she accepts Caesar’s proposition.
Their flight leads them to the railroad’s tunnels, a marvel of industry, intelligently designed and executed. “Who built it?” Caesar asks. The answer: “Who builds anything in this country?”
You won’t be sure where you will end up. But it will be north and away from those in pursuit (the dreaded slave catcher Ridgeway is determined to bring Cora back because her mother eluded him). The train tracks are laid out in endless dead ends and spurs to nowhere, the better to confuse authorities.
Whitehead envisions the world outside the plantation as a series of increasingly terrifying fever dreams. Cora emerges first in South Carolina, where black men and women work and learn, out of bondage. But the freedom is deceptive, illusory. Worse awaits in North Carolina and Tennessee.
Whitehead spares brief passages for other characters — Caesar, Mabel, even Ridgeway, who sees his calling as a necessary evil. “In another country they would have been criminals,” Whitehead writes of Ridgeway and his patrollers, “but this was America.”
The Underground Railroad is a thrilling, relentless adventure, an exquisitely crafted novel that exerts a deep emotional pull. It’s an alternate history with a bite and a heart. But Whitehead’s greatest skill is that he also forces us to consider the messy, ugly state of race relations today the further we immerse ourselves in Cora’s nightmare worlds.