The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead was a much-feted addition to the literary canon on erstwhile slave culture and its brutalities in the American South. It won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award and was longlisted for a host of other top prizes (including the Booker). The primary construct in the book, apart from the central character’s story, is the re-imagining of the famed and remarkable Underground Railroad as an actual railroad, with decrepit stations run by lone warriors against the brutal system and shabby boxcars plying its tracks ferrying runaways from one place to the other. It’s a risky ploy to undertake but it does work for the most part. The real underground railroad would have had it much tougher considering they had to rely on carrying runaways above-ground at huge risk of life to not just the slaves but also themselves. Sentiment towards whites who helped runaways was not very warm (to put it mildly) and sometimes resulted in brutalities of the same intensity as those inflicted on the slaves themselves, as Whitehead does enunciate on a couple of occasions in this book.
The book centers around Cora, a young black woman on a plantation in Georgia owned by the Randall brothers, somewhere in the early part of the nineteenth century. Misery was generally the lot of life of slaves on the plantation, but for Cora it was doubly so. Left to fend for herself after her mother runs away and is never caught, she becomes a fierce outcast even among her fellow slave community, banished to the Hob, a quarter for others like her. After an especially rough night and subsequent punishment at the hands of Terrence Randall, the much meaner of the brothers, she decides to take up an offer a recently arrived slave, Caesar, had proposed to her. This is to dare an escape from the plantation and make their way to friendly intermediaries who will put them on a train to the north, through what she thought till then was a mythical creation, the Underground Railroad. But this is no simple task. For, if they are caught and brought back the punishments will be assuredly brutal and most likely fatal, all the more to discourage anyone else having similar ideas. Cora, who has never forgiven her mother for escaping without her, decides to take her chances with Caesar and sets out one night with him, while also being joined suddenly by another slave and friend on the plantation.
It’s a perilous journey from the off, and after a traumatic interlude they do manage to reach the first station on the underground network, which takes them to South Caroline and their first stop. Though it was meant to be only a temporary stopping point, the runways get comfortable in their interlude and stay back, probably more than they should have. For the place has dark secrets of its own. Is Cora truly free here or is she just part of a grand social experiment designed to keep the blacks subjugated while giving them a false veneer of respectability? And to top it off, she is still a wanted runaway and a fearsome slave catcher called Ridgeway is on her trail. Ridgeway has his own bone to pick with her, ever since he could not find and bring back her mother who ran away years back. Cora finds herself upended from her brief interlude of piece and is on the run again on the railroad, but this time she ends up in far less salubrious climes in North Carolina. Cowering in an attic for several months in a place teeming with poison against the blacks and the whites who harbor them, she witnesses public lynchings that play as entertainment for the neighborhood folks. With Ridgeway still on her trail, through unexpected turns of events, she finds herself on a commune like farm where other runways like her and freemen exist side by side in seeming communal harmony. But this is still a country and time unfavorable to coexistence and Cora knows it’s just a matter of time before fate catches up with her.
It’s a potentially riveting spectacle that the premise sets up and it works for the most part. But there is something about the characterization though which makes it a little less than the sum of its parts. It’s tough to have a primary protagonist like Cora, someone who is meant to be virtually illiterate and yet able to give the necessary impetus to proceedings with worldly wise ruminations on the place and time she is living through, and the author does make a good fist of things. But yet, Cora remains slightly distant and elusive to us. The supporting characters, though all of them are mostly believable, are not delved into with enough depth to make us care too much for most of them. A notable exception would be the couple who harbor Cora in their attic amidst immense danger to their own safety. Also, Ridgeway is given a great initial build-up on how he came to his chosen calling of being a bounty hunter of runaway slaves but after a point does not generate the impact that I expected. There is an interesting section of the narrative though, where Ridgeway and Cora are thrown together for a while, which provides a gripping back and forth between their respective stations and thoughts. The beginning of each section is dotted with intriguing tidbits of the time; Wanted posters released by owners whose slaves ran away and the bounty offered for their return.
This is not a book for the faint of heart, as is probably most narratives dealing with the theme. There are sections of immense brutality and hardship inflicted on both the blacks as well as on the whites who have the temerity to help them. But it is without a doubt an important book when viewed through the lens of human history through the ages and a manual for how a system of enslavement reduces not just the enslaved but also the slaver. As is seen in different parts of this novel, the reasoning of an obviously unjust practice acquires various hues of acceptance for the people who are part of the system, whether in the form of conveniently twisted religious dictum to suit their narrative or in the belief that the world is a place which has to be conquered by the supposedly brave and its perceived weaker (read as more peace loving) denizens subjugated. The moral degradation this entails in the practitioners of the system is best exemplified by the brutal evening entertainments the residents of the otherwise quiet neighborhood in North Carolina partake in; that of the weekly lynching of the recaptured escapees and their collaborators.
In many ways this is a remarkable book. The construct of an actual underground railroad rather than the metaphorical one which existed in real life is strangely fascinating. In its depiction of brave men and women who went against a brutal system in the face of almost certain death or destruction provides a timely reminder of the efforts of the few people whose actions which went against the tide of the times eventually helped to create a better world. Little by little perhaps, but I for one would like to believe that today will always be better, for the most part than yesterday, because of the sacrifices made by these incredible people. So, while I wouldn’t rate the novel among my favorites, it packs enough of a punch for me to recommend this to all serious readers.