In recent months, I’ve read a couple of books concerned with ideas of slavery. I was not a fan of Underground Airlines by Ben Winters, and although I enjoyed Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, I wasn’t entirely convinced by its satirical use of slavery in modern California. The Underground Railroad, however, grabbed me from the beginning and didn’t let go until the very end.
Whitehead’s book begins with the roots of slavery, with people kidnapped from their homes, transported on ships and sold as slaves. It’s really harrowing; of course, it’s not an unfamiliar truth, but the way in which Whitehead depicts the reality of slavery is visceral and horrifying, ensuring the reader’s attention from the outset. The bulk of the book is about Cora, born into slavery on a Georgia cotton plantation and viewed as a madwoman by her fellow slaves for standing up to someone who tried to take the little that was hers. Her reputation means she’s surprised when Caesar, another slave, approaches her with a plan to escape. Initially dismissive of his suggestion, Cora soon changes her mind and the book takes an increasingly frantic tone as the pair pursue their freedom on the underground railroad.
As I’ve said, Whitehead reimagines the metaphorical railroad as a literal one, with runaways smuggled out of slave states in subterranean boxcars, often unsure as to their destination. The sense of fear is offset with excitement; born on the plantation and abandoned by her runaway mother, escape represents Cora’s first experiences away from cotton picking and a bunkhouse, and the idea of newness and adventure abounds, in amongst the horror that lurks round each page; a slave-catcher, Ridgeway, becomes a prominent character as the novel progresses, creating a sense of a thriller as well as a historical epic.
Somehow, I think I’ve managed to use the word “visceral” only once here, which is very impressive and a mark of the extensive nature of my vocabulary. I’ve read a lot of horror fiction recently which didn’t scare me half as much as the threats posed to Cora here. The violence depicted in The Underground Railroad is horrific, serving as a stern reminder of the terrors of that era, about which it’s easy to feel complacent, given that it’s in the past; Whitehead’s portrayal of tension and lack of understanding between races, however, says plenty about current relations as well as historical ones.
The Underground Railroad is a really impressive and important work. It’s a book to inspire discussion and a really memorable account of a period often depicted in fiction, but not usually this effectively.