What if the Underground Railroad had been a physical, subterranean means of transport? That’s the premise that drives Colson Whitehead‘s latest novel, The Underground Railroad. But the Oprah Book Club pick spreads beyond this catchy and convenient gimmick to become a gripping tale of survival, family, determination, and race.
Cora is the third woman in her family to live on the Randall plantation. Years before The Underground Railroad opens, her mother, Mabel, became the first slave to successfully escape the property. As a result, Cora grows up a “stray,” without friend or family, and relegated to Hob, where the infirm live out their few days. When she accepts an unexpected invitation from Caesar, who wants her to join him in his pursuit of freedom, Cora finds herself thrown into a seemingly endless race against a slave catcher with a vengeful streak.
The Underground Railroad is not for the faint of heart. Both Whitehead’s protagonist and her disappeared mother were born on Randall: a two-part plantation whose owner’s gruesome punishments lie at the fringe, even for so cruel a time and place as antebellum Georgia. People are shot, burned, flayed, impaled, ripped apart, and stoned. There are public suicides and tragic deaths in the elements. Worst of all, many of the killers take delight in their unprovoked carnage.
It’s not as if the violence in The Underground Railroad is without merit, however. For anyone — white folks in particular — who would rather forget the atrocities of the practice, the unbridled cruelty drives home the realities of American slavery. People were property, and there were no laws to protect them. No matter how they escaped bondage, freedmen faced legislation designed to return them to slavery by whatever means necessary. Social hygiene policies prescribed forced sterilization for black women who were deemed either unfit to procreate or too proliferate. And, law or no law, black communities had little recourse when night riders — precursors to the Ku Klux Klan — hunted them down in the dark.
The Underground Railroad deftly winds its way through these points in history. Some, like the early-20th century eugenics policies Cora encounters in South Carolina, are played out of historical order in Whitehead’s novel, which takes place in mid-19th century. In a world where former slaves ride to freedom through subway tunnels built by other slaves, however, anything is possible.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.
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