The Underground Railroad (2014) – Colson Whitehead

Title:The Underground Railroad
Author:Colson Whitehead
Publisher/s:Little Brown/Fleet
Date published:2014
Star Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

“And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for it’s foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

There is so much that I want to say about Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and I want to say all of that without leaning too heavily on the notion of the ‘slave narrative’ as art. In some ways it is difficult not to take that precarious step and compare this masterful prose to that of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Instead of the comparison though perhaps I will shelve this novel in the same sacred space as these literary greats. It deserves to be there and so it shall.

In the beginning there is Ajarry, who was taken from a village in West Africa, sent in a ship over the ocean to America and sold as a slave to a cotton plantation in Georgia owned by the Randall family. Ajarry’s daughter Mabel is born into slavery and inherits a minute piece of land she can barely grow a few yams on. When Mabel escapes the plantation and is never caught and therefore never returns, her daughter Cora inherits that same piece of ground and develops a lot of anger toward her mother. Feeling abandoned and alone Cora finds solace in the women of the plantation who reside in The Hob, where they are mostly the outcasts and the outspoken, and perhaps even the ‘mad’. It is here where Cora finds a family and a sense of home, amidst the violence and trauma of her everyday existence as someone’s property.

Cora’s life will forever be altered when she is approached by the educated, charming and born-free Caesar who was never meant to end up on the Randall plantation. Caesar wants more than anything to escape, and he plans on taking Cora with him. In Caesar’s eyes Cora is a good-luck charm owing to her mother Mabel being the only slave to to successfully escape the clutches and horrors of Randall. He plans to use the ‘underground railroad’ to get them out of Georgia and as far as the network of abolitionists can take them.

“The underground railroad is bigger than it’s operators – it’s all of you too. The small spurs, the big trunk lines. We have the newest locomotives and the obsolete engines, and we have handcars like that one. It goes everywhere, to places we know and those we don’t.”

What ensues through Whitehead’s masterful prose and terrific story-telling, is a literary tale of survival that begins in the harrowing darkness of a literal railroad that stretched from Georgia to North and South Carolina and onward into Tennessee and on to Indiana. The cavernous passages built by past slaves and the echoes of the dead, are haunted by fear and hope. Above ground there are places that have abolished slavery, places that center around public lynchings and places that hope to abolish black people entirely. When Caesar and Cora are separated, Cora spends many months hidden in the attic of a member of the railroad, and one cannot read these chapters without comparing the young slave’s experience to the life of Anne Frank.

“What a world it is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in it’s 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…Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.”

Cora’s journey to reach freedom and to find her mother are shadowed by the cruel and compulsive pursuit of Ridgeway, a slave-catcher who once failed to capture Mabel and feels compelled to capture the elusive daughter. The threat of capture and the inevitable torture do not however supersede her need to be free.

“Scrabbling in the walls like a rat. Whether in the fields or underground or in an attic room, America remained her warden”.

An interesting and challenging part of reviewing this work is that much like the literal ‘box-car’ of the railroad, The Underground Railroad shifts and sways between literary fiction, and historical fiction rather precariously, and it does so in the form of a rather compulsively readable novel. This is narrative fiction at it’s finest, and yet it is also the ugly history of a nation hidden much like the railroad itself. An uncomfortable novel decorated by the truths of a country, that resonates with its readers not just because the truth hurts, but because it is a struggle to establish what, if anything, has changed.

“Colour must suffice. It has brought us to this night, this discussion, and it will take us into the future. All I truly know is that we rise and fall as one, one colored family living next door to one white family. We may not know the way through the forest, but we can pick each other up when we fall, and we will arrive together.”

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