The concept of the ‘Great American Novel’ is a weird one, a novel which sums up the strange heart of America and its culture. Fictions about slavery are, for my money, some of the best contenders for this idea. As much as many white Americans may like to pretend this isn’t the case, the soul of America simply cannot be discussed without the sin that the nation was built upon. I genuinely despise people who will not admit this, just as I do those who deny that the horrors of colonialism and empire are at the heart of any discussion of the soul of my country. Slavery may be long gone, but it’s consequences are still ringing through to the modern day and it’s difficult to imagine an America where this is not the case.
The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a young third generation slave. When fellow slave Caesar asks her to attempt an escape with him to the underground railroad, she eventually agrees after initial reluctance, pursued by the ruthlessly efficient slave catcher Ridgeway. Here the underground railroad is a literal subterranean train and takes its passengers to relative safety, although it soon becomes clear that any true safety for a black slave in America will only be tenuous at best.
Given the subject matter, it’s unsurprising that The Underground Railroad is bleak. Despite having experienced many slave narratives in literature, film and television, the capriciousness and cruelty of the slave owners never ceases to shock. There’s no need to exaggerate, since the most imaginative horror writer would struggle to come up with something worse than the punishments meted out to captured escaped slaves. Whitehead takes his time building up an idea of slave life before the escape; the cruelty comes paired with catharsis, as the brief moments of freedom and joy Cora is allowed to enjoy cut through the horror and darkness. A core theme of this book is that a former slave may have been able to escape physical, but the mental scars and patterns of learned behaviour are all but impossible to shift. The Underground Railroad may be the personal story of Cora, but it’s also the story of America itself. Read this book and try and tell me Robert E Lee deserves a statue, although I suspect most who hold that view don’t read.
While The Underground Railroad is certainly a fascinating exploration of America on a macro level, the core thriller narrative of Cora’s escape is very entertaining. Many may only read this book on that level, which is fine! Ridgeway is a terrifying villain; he doesn’t seem to hold the same hideous views about the superiority of the white race and the need to keep the black in bondage for their own good that some others do. He isn’t much interested in grandiose justifications for slavery; for him, they are simply property to be returned. Cora spends much of the book glancing over her shoulder and is never able to become truly comfortable, even when she finds herself in relatively safe positions. Interspersed between the chapters following Cora are shorter chapters following other characters; some are from fellow slaves and some are from the perspective of white characters, revealing the complex and insidious forms that racism can take. One seemingly benign member of the underground railroad is revealed to be motivated from a colonial desire to be worshipped and praised by the African ‘savages’ she helps.
The Underground Railroad is a fascinating book, well deserving of the praise it has received. I’m looking forward to going back and taking in some more of Colson Whitehead’s back catalogue; I think it’s going to be good.