Chances are that you’ve heard of Colson Whitehead’s new novel, since it’s earned Oprah’s seal of approval (which came with a surprise early release date) and it’s already a bestseller.
Dear Readers, The Underground Railroad absolutely lives up to all of the good press.
In a tale that echoes the Odyssey and Gulliver’s Travels, The Underground Railroad follows the journey of Cora, teenage girl who escapes the hideous cruelties of a Georgia plantation (only to find uncertain harbors) via the Underground Railroad. In the novel, it’s not only a path of safe houses, trusted helpers, and secret routes, but also an actual subterranean railway, with branches and lines—all dangerous, all necessary.
By fashioning the narrative with this kind of mythic, not-quite-fantastic element (there are others: the notorious Tuskegee experiment is transplanted to antebellum South Carolina that is supposedly “progressive”; in gatherings that resemble our notion of the Salem witch trials, ordinary citizens in North Carolina conduct lynchings every Friday night), Mr. Whitehead reveals what he calls “states of possibility.” Each stop on Cora’s travels through this alternative Southern landscape—albeit a landscape grounded in the terrible facts of slavery—resonates through facets of American history that we must not forget.
Handling this dense underpinning of history and metaphor with grace and subtlety, Mr. Whitehead in The Underground Railroad never loses sight of the individual human story. Cora’s journey is the novel’s main line, but at intervals other branches spin off, illuminating the lives of secondary characters. These include Ajarry (Cora’s grandmother, kidnapped in Africa and brought across the ocean), Caesar (a literate man, the slave who convinces Cora to escape), and Ethel (a white woman who, for a time, grudgingly shelters Cora).
But the book belongs to Cora, an unforgettable character, a heroine. At the beginning of the novel, she’s on the sidelines; when her friend tries to get her to dance, “Cora never joined her, tugging her arm away. She watched.” Abandoned by her mother, who escaped alone, Cora is a “stray” among her fellow slaves, living with damaged women in a cabin called Hob. When she escapes though, she becomes the object of one man’s focus: she’s hunted by the same fanatic slave-catcher who failed to find her mother.
Cora is wary and slow to trust (absolutely understandable), strong-willed, intelligent, and very brave. She witnesses horrors that should be unspeakable, impossible; she is haunted by what she has seen and what has been done to her. The tension, even when she seems relatively safe, is always high, so that when the narrative grants her a reprieve, it feels to the reader like a long exhalation after a breath held too long:
She grabbed his hand. The almanac had a strange, soapy smell and made a cracking noise like fire as she turned the pages. She’d never been the first person to open a book before.
I hope you’ll open this one. The Underground Railroad is highly recommended.
A great review of The Underground Railroad (much more thorough than this one)