In East Hamptonite Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Underground Railroad, soon to be released in paperback, the reader is taken on a journey through the American South in the 1800s. The novel explores the various horrors slaves were subjected to—varying from state to state—as Cora, the protagonist, follows the mysterious Underground Railroad searching for freedom and peace. Though we have all learned about the Underground Railroad in our history classes, this one is different. Whitehead has given the Railroad a physical being, taking the form of a literal train bringing slaves across the country to,what they hope is a better life.
The novel begins on the Randall plantation. Cora is alone, abandoned by her mother at a young age, attempting to make it through the indignities of daily life. When Caesar, a fellow slave newly arrived at Randall plantation, propositions that Cora run away with him, Cora’s first reaction is to say no. After a brutal beating at the hand of a slavemaster, Cora changes her mind, and the two are soon on the run toward their first stop on the Railroad with the help of a white man. The train itself is a masterpiece. The way Whitehead describes it with such detail, down to the type of tile on the platform, brings the reader into a new world at each station.
Cora is similarly amazed. The journey to the train is not easy, and Caesar and Cora run into major obstacles, culminating in the murder of a boy who attempts to catch the slaves on their trek through the woods. But once Cora and Caesar arrive at their first destination, South Carolina, all troubles seem to be forgotten. Cora, with a new identity, enters society. For once, she has a taste of freedom. But nothing is as good as it appears. Soon Cora is on the run again, this time without Caesar, and her life takes a turn for the worse.
Whitehead’s use of the railroad is brilliant. As readers, we feel excitement at each stop as we anticipate what awaits Cora. Though there’s great injustice and inhumanity in each of the states Cora travels through, there are also allies who give the reader hope for a better world. Cora’s destination in the North, Indiana, has its own troubles, though at first it seems to be a safe haven. Through it all, though, we have a strong character who does not give up her dream of freedom.
There are certain sections of the novel in which the narrator changes, and we get a taste of what other characters are going through. The antagonist, Rideway the slave catcher, is followed throughout Cora’s story and makes the novel’s ending, where the two meet again for the last time, that much more gratifying for the reader. The story, in all the different narratives and perspectives, is one full of courage and hope, while riven by ruthlessness and intense cruelty. It looks at America’s history with condemnation and sheds light on the struggles of African-Americans.
Through the varying degrees of malice African-Americans face at each of Cora’s destinations, there’s a chance for reflection on the current state of racism in America. Though Cora is not always threatened with overt violence, there’s always something roiling beneath the surface. The Underground Railroad confronts the dirty history that America was built on and gives it a personal narrative through the strong voice of a 17-year-old girl. Whitehead has given us a work of fiction that has a tragic history as its foundation.
The Underground Railroad is available now at your local bookstore, and will be released in paperback January 30, 2018.