Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“What a world it is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.”

Writing about atrocity is one of the most challenging subject choices that an author can make. It places a plethora of demands on a writer, not least the question of how to personalise an event of mass brutality whilst still affording it the emotional resonance required for connection with the reader. Events such as the Holocaust, slavery, and the Rwandan genocide are incredibly difficult to comprehend, due to both their unimaginable scale and the degree of cruelty required for their execution. For these reasons, literature remains one of the most exacting methods for communicating about atrocity. When done well, however, it is undoubtedly one of the most purposefully rewarding sites of historical confrontation for both reader and writer. That victims can find solace in the arts as a process of accounting for their own experiences is testament to the power of creativity as a tool for personal and public reconciliation. Where arguments still abound as to the best ways to move on from atrocity – and I’ve spent almost a decade working with this specific question – it is undeniable that literature, as a tool for both education and accounting, provides one of the most powerfully immersive means of memorialisation and the development of compassion.

In my experience, the most demanding and impactful fictionalisations of atrocity are those novels willing to go beyond a linear blending of fact and fiction. Works that rest more fully on the historical, such as Giles Foden’s The Last King of Scotland, are incredibly important, with tremendous educational potential. Yet it is the novels prepared to afford themselves more space for exploring the unconventional that tend to have the most lasting and affecting impact on the reader. Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits – an epic cross-generational study of life in Chile, in part at the time of Salvador Allende’s overthrow – plays with magical realism in a manner that, far from detracting from the barbarity of Pinochet’s coup and subsequent atrocities, absolutely nails the savagery of the violence. The juxtaposition of the fantastical with the painfully realistic makes it that much harder to look away from the truths that the novel distills.

When I started reading Colson Whitehead’s highly lauded Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, I fully expected a fictionally personalised account of slavery and escape. For the first few chapters, I believed that was what I was getting. Yet, what Whitehead has achieved in this novel is something far more profound. Injecting his own elements of magical realism, alongside a willingness to play with time, The Underground Railroad is an incredible feat that – with regards to the ficionalisation of atrocity – only comes once in a blue moon. The novel follows Cora, a teenage slave on a Georgia cotton plantation. Enslaved since birth, Cora was abandoned by her mother Mabel, the only slave from the plantation who has managed to successfully evade slave catchers and make her escape. When Cora is approached by Caesar, a recent arrival on the plantation, with an offer of escape via the underground railroad, Cora decides to take her chance. Utilising the railroad – which, in Whitehead’s telling, manifests as a physical, underground transportation network – Cora and Caesar begin to work their way north and to a future of intangible and uncertain freedom.

“One drop. A feeling settled over Cora. She had not been under its spell in years, since she brought the hatchet down on Blake’s doghouse and sent the splinters into the air. She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to stop theft. She had seen boys and girls younger than this beaten and had done nothing. This night the feeling settled on her heart again. It grabbed hold of her and before the slave part of her caught up with the human part of her, she was bent over the boy’s body as a shield.”

The Underground Railroad is a demanding read, as one would expect of any novel that denies pacified descriptions of slavery’s realities. The brutalities are everywhere, not least in the relationships between the slaves themselves – a dynamic typically mythologised as singular camaraderie in the face of systematic brutality. That Whitehead is willing to problematise these relationships – Cora’s fight for control over the small plot of earth that she uses for a garden and her subsequent consignment to the ‘Hob’ are some examples – is key to the success of The Underground Railroad as a work of literature in its own right. While it would not be accurate to suggest that writing about atrocity is ever a ‘safe’ or straightforward endeavour, following a traditional formula that appeals to contemporary sensibilities certainly contains a greater degree of certainty for any author. Pushing the boundaries in terms of how we think about events that involved mass collusion and have continued ramifications for racial, religious or ethnic dynamics, posits an incredible amount of risk. As with Toni Morrison’s Beloved, however, skirting the comfortably shocking in order to reexamine the ethical boundaries we’ve created for ourselves is a courageous endeavour.

Kathryn Schulz’s fascinating article ‘The Perilous Lure of the Underground Railroad‘ points to the particular mythologising that western – largely American – society has applied to its conceptulisation of the underground railroad. The comfort that the idea of ‘brave’ slaves, freeing themselves from their bonds with the assistance of morally awakened (or, as the kids would say, ‘woke’) abolitionist whites, brings to a society still condemned by racial ‘lines in the sand’ is troubling. Any society that has been widely complicit in atrocity – whether slavery in the US or colonialism in the UK – is inclined toward a rewriting of history in which its can focus on the heroes. It offers the same moral appeal as the idea that, were we alive in 1930s Germany, we would’ve all been in the resistance or hiding victimised minorities in our attics. The Underground Railroad offers no such comfort. While the novel is populated with well-intentioned southern whites, it plays with time in such a way that it is able to point to the continued faults in attitudes towards slaves, ex-slaves, and subsequent generations of African Americans. When Cora reaches South Carolina, for example, she is introduced to a seemingly progressive society, apparently fixated on black advancement. The reality, however, is not quite so kind. Whitehead invokes aspects of the late-18th century eugenics movement, as well as the history of the Tuskegee syphillis experiment, to further problematise contemporary ideas about abolitionism and the advancement of ex-slaves.

“The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others. Cora had heard Michael recite the Declaration of Independence back on the Randall plantation many times, his voice drifting through the village like an angry phantom. She didn’t understand the words, most of them at any rate, but created equal was not lost on her. The white men who wrote it didn’t understand it either, if all men did not truly mean all men. Not if they snatched away what belonged to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom.”

Perhaps most stark of the different fictionalised elements that Whitehead introduces is the physical manifestation afforded to the underground railroad. In an interview with NPR, Whitehead explained this choice: “You know, I think when you’re a kid and you first hear about it in school or whatever, you imagine a literal subway beneath the earth. And then you find out that it’s not a literal subway, and you get a bit upset. And so the book took off from that childhood notion.” Not only did this choice allow the author to play with other aspects of time – “…skyscrapers, aspects of the eugenics movement, forced sterilisation and Tuskegee” – it also directly highlights the tendency toward steeping these aspects of history in myth. Although there is certainly an element of naiveté in the childhood ascription of actual railroad features to the underground railroad, there is definitely something more to what Whitehead has achieved. Juxtaposing these more fantastical components of the narrative with the purposeful insertion of fluid and disturbingly contemporary dialogue surrounding black “uplift” and racial hysteria, the novel points toward the jarring chasms between the consoling focus that we give to the exceptions to systemic violence and its ubiquitous realities. As Schulz explains:

“These are inconvenient facts for those who like to locate America’s antebellum conscience in the North. Had that region really been so principled, it wouldn’t have needed a clandestine system to convey fugitives beyond its borders to a foreign nation. Instead, while slavery itself was against the law in the North, upholding the institution of slavery was the law. As a nation, the United States regarded it as a legitimate practice, respected the right of white Southerners to own other human beings, and expressed that respect in laws that governed not half but all of the land.”

As Cora works her way through a world in which true freedom remains evasive, she finds that there has been a trade between the literal bonds of slavery for the figurative – and, in places, literal – limitations imposed on the life of an ex-slave and runaway. Unlike other works on the subject, The Underground Railroad does not simply rely on a tension imposed by the pursuit of slave by slave catcher. Although these traditional plot points, including a certain amount of mystery surrounding the fate of Cora’s mother, are present, it is the tensions created by the question of whether freedom is ever truly realisable that give this novel its unique strength. As with Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, Whitehead forces us to confront these queries as more than a historical curiosity. He posits Cora’s struggles as having a continued relevance and actively problematises the accepted myths that society has embraced as a means to displace its own complicity. Works like The Underground Railroad are essential reading, forcing us to examine the chasms that we have willingly created and maintained in our attempts to wrestle with the gravity of atrocity and turn away from our own roles in mythologising its content and consequences.

The Underground Railroad


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