It’s funny the number of people I’ve spoken to about this book who have immediately said that growing up, they always assumed that the Underground Railroad was a literal Underground Railroad. And then, usually at an embarrassingly older age, they realised that no, the slaves did not escape on the Tube. It’s this idea that Colson Whitehead plays with in his extraordinary novel.
Cora is a slave on a terrible plantation in Georgia, shunned even by the other slaves. When her fellow slave Caesar asks her to run away with him, Cora is initially reluctant, but three weeks later she agrees, thinking of her mother, the only runaway slave who was never caught. And from the moment when Cora and Caesar flee the plantation, boarding the Underground Railroad, to the final poignant chapters, we barely draw breath. The pair emerge in South Carolina, initially a paradise until a sinister scheme for controlling the black population is revealed. Cora keeps on, finding herself in North Carolina, where Negroes have been banned altogether, and where she must hide, Anne Frank-like. And on it goes. Cora keeps on, occasionally finding happiness, finding love, finding refuge, but with the terrifying slave hunter Ridgeway always on her heels, determined to catch her as he failed to catch her mother.
Throughout the book, even the bit-players are fleshed out, from Ridgeway and how he became the most successful and feared slave hunter in the South; to Stevens, the Doctor and bodysnatcher; to Ajarry, Cora’s grandmother who was transported from her village in West Africa; to Mabel, the runaway who is both Cora’s driving force and the object of her burning resentment for abandoning her as a baby. The far reach of slavery, and how it interlinks in all their lives, and the lives of everyone in the United States, is thus sharply highlighted.
The Underground Railroad does not spare us a detail of the horror endured by the slaves on the plantation, the runaways, the free blacks, or even the white people who assist them, however reluctantly or self-servingly. The stark, pared-back prose never lets us forget that Cora’s ‘freedom’ hangs on a knife edge, or that violence, murder and lynchings can be found around every corner.
With a breathtaking pace which would put a traditional thriller to shame, at once playfully inventive and almost unbearably poignant, The Underground Railroad is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is out now, published by Fleet.