Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD is a remarkable work of literary speculative fiction, a bold re-imagining of America’s Underground Railroad. It’s beautifully written, heartbreaking, compelling, and richly detailed.
I first read Whitehead when I picked up his massive literary zombie book, ZONE ONE, which I found frustrating and annoying in the reading but appreciated as a whole after finished. A strange thing for this reader, and the only time it’s ever happened for me that way. I felt like this celebrated literary author was showing off how well he could put a sentence together and break the rules of narrative. Still, I’d heard good things about THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD and decided to give it a shot.
In history, the Underground Railroad was a network of routes and safe houses set up in the 1800s to help slaves escape to the free states and Canada with the help of abolitionists. Whitehead re-imagines the railroad as a very real thing, built by mysterious agency, a series of tracks and stations carved into the earth. At first, this threw me, as the novel’s opening is so real and grounded, but I went with it, and it ended up working for me and led the way to an alternate-history America.
The novel focuses on Cora, a slave on a Georgia plantation. Life is horrible enough until the master dies, and his cruel brother takes over the plantation. She escapes into the underground railroad. Her trek takes her into other states, also re-imagined, each taking a different path in dealing with the “slave question,” what to do about slavery in general and the existence of African-Americans specifically. In each state, the answer is always cruelty, whether dressed up or naked, following the maxim, “All men are created equal, unless they decide you are not a man.” A ruthless slave catcher, Ridgeway, relentlessly pursues her. The novel lost steam for me between the second and the third act, but picked up again nicely toward the end.
There’s a lot one could interpret in this novel about race, the legacy of slavery, and the savagery America was founded on, but I’ll leave that to the scholars. For me, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD is a beautifully written, very compelling story about slavery that made me think about and feel something for a period of history that previously felt abstract, as well as race in general. I’d seen movies depicting American slavery before, but nothing as brutal as this, based on actual slave accounts collected in a project funded during the FDR administration. In its stark portrayal of brutality and hopelessness and hope, it reminded me of Howard Fast’s SPARTACUS. And it made me thankful Americans went to war to end this cruel and horrifying institution.