Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves, but Cora is an outcast even among her fellow Africans, and she is coming into womanhood; even greater pain awaits. Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, and they plot their escape. Matters do not go as planned – Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her – but they manage to find a station and head north.
In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is not a metaphor – a secret network of tracks and tunnels has been built beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, where both find work in a city that at first seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens – and Ridgeway, the relentless slave-catcher sent to find her, arrives in town. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing journey, state-by-state, seeking true freedom.Like Gulliver, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey – Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in states in the pre-Civil War era. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage, and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.
What I thought:
There is horrific detail in this powerful novel. Whitehead reminds us that slavery was far from the sanitised version that we choose to remember – the idea of the loyal servant lovingly cared for by a benevolent master. This novel takes that bastardized perception based on ignorance and annihilates it with a brutality that is both purposeful and casual at once.
At first I was confused by the portrayal of the underground railroad as a literal rather than figurative railroad. As I read on I grew to appreciate this device as it showed fantasy hard pressed against a terrible reality.
We like to think that we’ve moved on from such bigotry, but I question that. Look at how we treat the stories of refugees fleeing war torn countries – reading the comments on any web-based news site is enough to convince me that there are vast numbers in society who still subscribe to an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality. It is that mentality which allows horrors such as slavery to thrive.
Distance and time gives us complacency, and a certain ‘Gone With the Wind’ version of the cosseted slave. Whitehead carefully shows us that a society which accepts slavery becomes enslaved.
(Book supplied by Hachette NZ)