Cora is an enslaved person 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. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted. Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again and again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
In Whitehead’s conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor for the people and safehouses who were stopping points for escaping enslaved persons —engineers and conductors operate a literal secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil.
Cora is an extraordinary protagonist. While fierce, strong, and intelligent, when given a taste of freedom she allows herself to become compassionate, thoughtful, and hungry to learn more about the world around her. Peppered between are the voices of people Cora encounters, Mabel being a personal favourite, which add depth and context to their own lives and to their interactions with her.
As mentioned above The Underground Railroad is transformed within the pages of this book from a figurative railroad to a literal one. As a fictional device it is clever, powerful, allowing Cora to move swiftly between ideas and ideologies represented by various southern slave States. At the same time, the Railroad retains its historic symbolism of freedom, rendering it impossible for those who benefit from “that peculiar institution” to destroy it.
The Underground Railroad is certainly fiction, however the history in which it is set, tips it towards horror. The horrors of slavery, physically, psychologically, and emotionally were real and the risks of helping those enslaved persons to become free remained. The strength and fluidity of Whitehead’s seamless writing allows him to create anxious, compulsive reading.
Vivid and raw, it portrays the honest brutality of the slave trade and the lives of enslaved people at the same time humanising and individualizing those trapped within its system, allowing them to step out from the pages of history and become more than just a statistic of the past.
Reviewed by Kelsey Ward