The Underground Railroad
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After reading Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys last year, I knew I wanted to read The Underground Railroad. While I wouldn’t say this tale of slavery and reimagining of the underground railroad as an actual railroad is an enjoyable read, it is quite brilliant.
Cora is a slave suffering the indignities and brutality of plantation life when Caesar convinces her to run. The famed railroad takes them to South Carolina where they try to settle into a false comfort, knowing they are being hunted. The comfort is short-lived, and Cora runs again.
There is so much to appreciate here–not least being the railroad metaphor turned literal (fourth grade me, who was confused when first reading about Harriet Tubman, appreciates having my initial imaginings brought to life). Hard as it is to read, Whitehead brings the absolute horror and brutality to life in a way I’ve never read before, along with the humanity of the slaves who experienced it all.
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.