Abandoned by her escaped mother to a life of slavery on a cotton plantation in Georgia, Cora is an outcast even among the other slaves. It isn’t until Caesar arrives from Virginia and asks her to run with him that she even considers trying to escape. Caesar is different. He can read and write and he has a contact who will help them get to the Underground Railroad. They escape, heading north, and attempt to find a better life, hunted all the while by the relentless slave catcher Ridgeway.
The Underground Railroad imagines a history in which slaves and engineers built an actual underground network of tracks and tunnels to funnel slaves out of the South. The trains are unpredictable, both in time and destination. Each state into which Cora flees is a distillation of one type of brutality after another, inspired by different historical occurrences, each a series of trials of twisted freedom through which Cora must pass. As a National Book Award Winner and Pulitzer Prize nominee, The Underground Railroad feels like a book a high school English class would dissect to uncover the hidden metaphors of the American dream, a la The Great Gatsby.
My favorite passage involves Cora’s time working at a natural history museum, in which she’s an actor in three exhibits, depicting life in Africa, on a slave ship, and on the plantation, respectively. The curator admits to Cora that he took certain liberties in the accuracy because of the museum’s restrictions, but the message is clear. History is written by the conquerors, and the slave experience has been co-oped by the white man, smoothing over it’s frayed edges for an age-appropriate audience.
Unfortunately, the the intellectual ideas and concepts are stronger than the narrative itself. Whitehead creates powerful images of plantation life and death, and his stark prose reflects Cora’s isolation from her own feelings, fellow slaves, and her situation. But the narrative distance Whitehead employs is the very limitation of the reader’s ability to connect with Cora on any emotional level. Cora is by far the weakest character, and only a couple of secondary characters are minimally more interesting. What happens to Cora and those around her is horrific in the way police report is horrific. There is no access to Cora, no kinship between her and the reader—only cold hard facts interspersed with literary metaphor.
Recommended for fans of Americana and literary fiction.
“No slave had ever keeled over dead at a spinning wheel or been butchered for a tangle. But nobody wanted to speak on the true disposition of the world. And no one wanted to hear it. Certainly not the white monsters on the other side of the exhibit at that very moment, pushing their greasy snouts against the window, sneering and hooting. Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.”