Author: Colson Whitehead
Published by: Fleet, 2017
Genre: Historical Fiction
“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.”
So I have read slave narratives before, and from my education and wider reading I have a fairly solid understanding of slavery in both the US and the Caribbean. Nevertheless, reading Whitehead’s descriptions of the realities of life on the plantation: the back-breaking work, the microcosmic hierarchies meant to divide and conquer, the cruelty meted out by plantation owners and overseers, often made me pause and take a deep breath to steady myself and settle my emotions.
“Randall’s visitors sipped spiced rum as Big Anthony was doused with oil and roasted. The witnesses were spared his screams, as his manhood had been cut off on the first day, stuffed in his mouth, and sewn in.”
Nobody will ever convince me that slavery was not one of the most, if not the most, cruel acts of genocide in history. In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass describes his enslavers as “being the meanest as well as the most wicked of men.” Whitehead’s use of imagery along with Cora’s matter-of-fact tone when recounting these events captures that wickedness completely.
After Cora escapes the plantation and is journeying to freedom we get to see the insidious nature of racism at work in wider American society, as well as the outright violence of it. While other readers have criticised the novel for having too many characters, I think Whitehead’s use of the split narrative is inspired in this context. Allowing us to hear the voices of the other characters gives us an insight into the driving forces behind who they are and how they came to interact with Cora the way they do (see Ethel Wells).
If there is one thing I’m not sure I’m keen on it’s the reimagining of the Underground Railroad as a real railroad with trains and conductors. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, and some readers really liked it, but for me it didn’t really add anything to the story and I found it a bit difficult to suspend my disbelief at first. Different strokes for different folks I guess!
Character Spotlight: Cora
The protagonist Cora is an orphaned slave on the Randall cotton plantation, forced to live with a group of ostracised slave women. While I did not form an emotional bond with her character, on principle I wanted to see her win. I admired her strength, her bravery, her resistance. She has been criticised as being a cold and distant character, but I’m not sure I agree. If you grew up alone, forced to fight for survival both in your ‘workplace’ and among your peers, as well as navigating the violence and trauma of slavery, wouldn’t you learn to be cold and matter-of-fact too? Furthermore, she falls in love, so we know she’s not completely emotionally stunted. Could Cora’s voice merely be a reflection of her surroundings and experiences? I think so.
Overall, The Underground Railroad takes the reader on an emotive journey through the complex history of slavery and its impacts, and I would recommend it to all those who enjoy character-driven novels and historical fiction.
Have you read this novel? Do you have any historical fiction recommendations? Comment below!