I picked up Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad by complete coincidence. It was on special offer, it had a sticker on it saying it had won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and it had an endorsement by Barack Obama. I am not sure how anyone could have resisted the combination of those three factors.
The Underground Railroad is a reimagining of the 19th century in which “The Underground Railroad” is not a metaphor but a description of an actual underground railroad that slaves used to escape North:
“The tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables – this was a marvel to be proud of”
Cora, the young heroine, is a slave on a plantation in Georgia who decides to attempt an escape North when her Master dies and his psychopathic younger brother takes over. She is pursued by a slave-catcher by the name of Ridgeway – who is obsessed with catching her (in an obsession almost parallel to that of Ahab in Moby Dick) – as Cora’s mother is the only slave he has ever failed to catch.
If the first few pages of the novel have a lot in common with Toni Morisson’s Beloved, the rest reminds me of the anti-utopian qualities of Margaret Atwood’s writing: Whitehead’s description of white anxieties over black reproduction and the body snatchers who love using black bodies for medical research in South Carolina, which then pale in the horror of North Carolina, which in Whitehead’s alternative version of history, has tried to kill all the blacks found in the state, instead of ‘abolishing slavery’, it ‘abolishes niggers’.
Ridgeway’s obsession with slave-catching almost echoes the comic-book style of Quentin Tarantino’s Django, complete with an accomplice who sports a chain of human ears, and the young freed slave Homer who occasionally even wears a top hat.
The writing is gripping and impeccable. Formally, the book is beautifully pitched, down to the last heartbreaking revelation of one of the ‘interludes’.
‘Interludes’ (they are not actually called that, it is a phrase I use for convenience) are pieces of the narrative which occur when Cora is moving between the different states. They are the only sections that do not focus on Cora’s perspective (we get some insight into the mind of her friend, her pursuer, her rescuer, etc) Each large section of the book is introduced by by ‘a reward letter’ which seems to be either an actual historical letter or strongly based on those… They are haunting. Here’s an example
“30 DOLLARS REWARD
will be given to any person who will deliver to me (…) a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl, and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.”
This I feel is the heart of the novel: even though it plays with alternative history, anti-utopia, steampunk, and comic book conventions, ultimately, behind it all, is the sound of real people screaming with pain, of those who died because they were regarded as property rather than as human beings.
The Underground Railroad, though it reads easily, is not exactly a relaxing read. At times I had to put it down because the descriptions of the violence were almost nauseating.
Ultimately, what I wanted to do after reading The Underground Railroad, is to reach out for a good history book which would tell me more about the stories of the non-metaphorical underground railroad and about those who lived and died on the plantations. (Please do let me know if you can recommend one!) We cannot allow ourselves to forget those stories.
Interesting reviews and articles about Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad :
The New Yorker A historical look at our perceptions of the underground railroad, which refers to Colson Whitehead’s book as a touchstone and a pretext. Very interesting.
The London Review of Books A review of The Underground Railroad, which talks about the book in the wider context of Colson Whitehead’s previous works