“The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday, $26.95, 320 pages)
Though it’s the most recent pick of Oprah’s Book Club 2.0, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad hardly needs that validation to be pronounced worthy of your reading time. Expect to see this vivid and disturbing novel about the horrors of slavery on many “Best of 2016” lists and competing for major prizes when the year is done.
Whitehead’s literary career has been noteworthy for its variety and unpredictability. The three works that preceded this one are two novels – a coming-of-age story set on Long Island (Sag Harbor) and a zombie apocalypse tale (Zone One) – and a nonfiction account of his participation in the World Series of Poker (The Noble Hustle). Without diminishing the quality of any of those works, they inevitably will suffer by comparison to the depth and seriousness of this novel.
Set between the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the beginning of the Civil War, The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a teenage slave who flees a Georgia cotton plantation with two fellow slaves and makes her way north, all the while pursued by Arnold Ridgeway, a ruthlessly effective slave hunter. The novel possesses all the qualities of the most exciting, chase-based thrillers, but it’s the way Whitehead elevates his story above pure genre fiction that makes this such a rewarding work.
In describing Cora’s flight, Whitehead fully displays his imaginative powers. He does that, in part, by conceiving the transportation system of the novel’s title, not merely as the real-life network of safe houses and other hiding places that helped carry slaves to freedom above the Mason-Dixon line and in Canada, but also as an actual subterranean railroad whose “steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus.” And when Cora surfaces, she discovers an array of horrors that rival those of the plantation, some of them eerily prefiguring actual events in the history of American race relations.
In South Carolina, where she enacts aspects of the slave experience for dioramas in an institution called the Museum of Natural Wonders, life seems placid until she learns the state is home to mass sterilization experiments on black subjects. When she emerges in North Carolina, she watches from an attic hiding place the weekly execution rituals whose victims are “hung from trees as rotting ornaments” on what comes to be known, with bitter irony, as the Freedom Trail. It’s not until she reaches Indiana that she finally experiences something approaching true freedom.
Whitehead’s novel resonates far behind the simple story of an appealing and determined young woman on a perilous flight to freedom. His description of Cora’s hiding place in the stifling attic of the North Carolina abolitionist’s house, with her pursuers like “sharks moving their snouts beneath a ship, looking for the food they sensed was close,” evokes the memory of Anne Frank. And his account of a raid by local vigilantes on the Indiana farm where free “negroes” and fugitives like Cora live in what they believe is relative safety, featuring, amid the violence, a library ablaze, “books burning on the shelves inside,” can’t help but summon up other episodes of racial or ethnically motivated carnage, whether executed by the Ku Klux Klan, the Nazis or any other powerful force bent on genocide.
Whitehead also impels us to consider the gulf that separates this country’s exalted founding myths from the reality of racial prejudice that lingers to this day. He invokes the Declaration of Independence in describing the talent of a slave named Michael on Cora’s Georgia plantation, taught to recite that document from memory by a slave owner “fascinated by the abilities of South-American parrots” who “reasoned that if a bird could be taught limericks, a slave might be taught to remember them as well.” When she recalls those performances, Cora “wasn’t sure the document described anything real at all.” For her, America “was a ghost in the darkness, like her.”
In their unvarnished depictions of the horrors of slavery, comparisons between The Underground Railroad and Solomon Northrup’s memoir Twelve Years a Slave are unavoidable. The novel also shares with Tom Piazza’s 2015 novel, A Free State, the story line of a brutal bounty hunter in pursuit of an escaped slave.
Whitehead has melded these elements to create a forceful depiction of the shame that is this country’s heritage of slavery. Places like Ferguson and Baltimore are painful examples of how that legacy lingers today. And Whitehead’s masterly creation is a frank, often shocking, reminder of that terrible truth.
Email Harvey Freedenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @HarvF.