Colson Whitehead’s novel the Underground Railroad relays the story of a Cora, a slave whose mother is purported to be the first and only slave who escaped to freedom on her plantation. This legacy follows Cora for the entire novel and in some ways is the reason for her escape and for her troubles on the Underground Railroad. Unlike other novels tackling this subject matter, the Underground Railroad is not a network of people hiding behind code words– though the author does include a clever reference to towards the end of the book– but an actual, literal railroad. The consequences of this switch from information network to physical path crop up from time to time throughout the novel. At times, they allow him to switch the focus from Cora’s escape to the culture that pervaded the United States at the time.
Whiteheads’ recount of pre-civil war America is blunt, unwavering and, perhaps, even cynical. This cynicism is most memorably captured in his motif of darkness. In the beginning of the novel one of the conductors of the railroad tells Cora “If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.” It is only later that Cora realizes , through riding rails again and again that the true face of America is the darkness inside them.
As Cora continues her journey North, her understanding that “one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality” is only reinforced. The myth of the North outshines its reality. Even characters’ who help Cora have their vices laid bare: perhaps they envision themselves the white savior of what they call a ‘lesser people’; perhaps they are cowards; perhaps they desire too much, too fast; perhaps they don’t fight at all.
He does sprinkle strands of hope through the novel. They are often shredded, sometimes even moments after they are delivered. This leads the reader to guard their hope and tamp it down, much like the main character of the novel. I cannot truthfully say that this novel was a hopeful one and I’m not sure I could use the word “enjoy” to describe my experience with this novel. Nevertheless, I recommend it. It is skillfully written.
I actually gasped, exclaimed even, during some parts of the book. Whitehead plays with the readers desire for the main characters’ success. He lulls you into a calm, albeit a tense one, then wrenches any security you felt away from you. In terms of building suspense, Whitehead succeeded, I hovered between anxious and horrified through the entirety of the novel with only one moment of true calm.
The structure of the novel may bother some as he jumps between characters and moves back and forth in time, but it never seemed he did so without reason. In fact, he would often add a new character chapter right before an important event. For someone who is often a character-driven, world-driven reader, this technique worked well for me.
Don’t be fooled by the back flap description, there is only one true main character in this story: Cora. Some have complained that the style of writing, coupled with Cora’s reactions to obstacles, hardships and tragedies, removed them from the story. They felt unable to sympathize with Cora’s plight because she– or the narrator– relays events in a distant manner. While I understand their perspective, I didn’t feel bothered by this. On the contrary, I found her reactions realistic and varied. For me, Cora is sustained by a mix of defiance, resilience, bitterness, regret, desperation, and hope. Her perceived stoniness is a result of the atrocities she has bore and witness, but it is not all she is.
The villain, Ridgeway, is not the typical story villain. He is to “return escaped slaves” through a much more sinister form of hatred and racism. His belief in the order of the world is an almost effortless, lazy acceptance that slavery exists for a reason and the “institution” was infallible. To be sure, Ridgeway hates a number of plantation owners and is disgusted with them. He is aware of the cruelty, he recognizes it and he participates in it. His conversations with Cora are underlined by the specter of “practicality”. He admits the system is cruel, but he actively benefits from it. This, for me at least, was what made him the more terrifying villain. That he found atrocities an acceptable method to achieve personal goals, that he was clever enough to understand it and to find ways to benefit from it. Ultimately, it is his pride that leads to his obsession with Cora not his desire to protect a system.
A note on other reviews I’ve read:
Sorry, this is something that has annoyed me about some other reader reviews I’ve read. They have claimed that particular scenes where in black bodies are harmed by doctors are inaccurate; that they have no basis in history. In fact, they are not inaccurate. Perhaps you could argue they are anachronistic– I’ve only read accounts occurring after the time period the story is written in– but you can not argue that comparable things never happened to black people in the U.S..