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The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead

Premise: On the Randall cotton plantation in the southern US state of Georgia, Cora is a slave who lives in fear of the master’s cane. When new arrival Caesar tells her of his plans to escape, she agrees to join him and soon they are on a journey along the Underground Railroad. They take on new identities whilst experiencing life in semi-tolerant South Carolina before moving onwards to a free black community in Indiana. All the while, Cora is pursued by the slave catcher, Ridgeway, and as a result, she has a constant eye gazing over her shoulder.

The slave trade is without a doubt one of the most heinous enterprises ever carried out by the human race. From the inhumane conditions of the voyage across the Atlantic to the degrading spectacle of slave auctions where human beings were sold as nothing more than commodities to be traded, it is on the same level of abhorrence as the holocaust or other more modern day atrocities in terms of its barbaric, inherently evil nature. It is a stain that still bleeds into the culture of today’s America and books like “The Underground Railroad” are an important reminder of a grim chapter in the history of the world.

The story is primarily concerned with the fate of Cora whose mother and grandmother have both been slaves on the same cotton plantation where Cora grows up in ignorance of the outside world. As we follow her, we learn aspects of her family’s history through the harrowing tale of her grandmother’s capture, “the noxious air of the hold” as she is shipped over to America, the fact that she is raped by “some of the more seasoned mates”, and the revelation that she twice tried to kill herself in order to escape from her awful fate. And we start to understand the brutal everyday realities of the plantation slaves through cold statements of fact – i.e. “her youngest [son] never woke up after a boss hit him in the head with a wooden block” or “she had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows.” The way Whitehead writes is unsparingly direct. It doesn’t let us turn our face away from the atrocities that were frequently carried out.

 

However, in the narrative of the escape, the author also ponders on the possibility of hope. He explores different gradations of freedom and how the speech/actions of a few can sway the opinions of the many. In South Carolina, Cora gets a job as a ‘type’ in a museum where she acts out tableaus entitled ‘Scenes from Darkest Africa’, ‘Life on the Slave Ship’ and ‘Typical Day on the Plantation.’ It is a complete white-washing that bears no semblance on reality. Later, she watches from an attic window as a minstrel show foments the prejudices of the local townspeople. And when she arrives in the so-called free black community in Indiana, she listens to a resident advocate the expulsion of runaways/criminals because they are not the ‘best’ members of their race.

 

In all of this, “The Underground Railway” is a brilliant exploration of belonging, racism, prejudice and collective amnesia. It is unflinching in the way that it tells its story, and through Whitehead’s economical style, the narrative is able to encompass many different angles and perspectives. In his reimagining of history (the Underground Railway is given a physical form), Whitehead is able to emphasise the progress being made in the technological, medical and scientific domains whilst the medieval issue of slave ownership still persists. It also helps make this a truly compelling tale.

Who might enjoy this book: Anyone who loves “To Kill a Mockingbird” (Harper Lee) (NB – this should be everyone!) should definitely give this a go. In a way, this has a similar tone to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” (which has its own ‘Underground Railroad’).

 

Other novels along a similar theme: “Roots” (Alex Haley), “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (Mark Twain). Further down the line of history “The Help” (Kathryn Stockett) is a brilliant account of racial segregation in 1960s Mississippi.