The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, tells the story of a slave’s escape and her perilous journey through secret routes and safe havens.
Cora was born into slavery in the early 1800s. Her mother Mabel was born a slave; her grandmother was captured in West Africa. Life on the cotton plantation in Georgia is especially tough for the young girl because her mother is despised by her fellow slaves.
Then Mabel runs away one night without saying a word and a devastated Cora becomes a pariah orphan with no friends and nobody to protect her from being molested by other slaves.
When the mild-tempered plantation owner dies and the farm is taken over by his violently abusive brother, 15-year-old Cora agrees to run away with a fellow slave called Caesar who knows about the underground railroad. The route is an actual subterranean railway track complete with engineers, stations and decrepit wagons.
A loose system of abolitionists and sympathetic white people harbour them in secret hideouts and attics, and the two are able start a new life with new identities in South Carolina.
However, a notorious slave catcher starts looking for them. From South Carolina to North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana and beyond, we follow Cora’s terrified journey. Each stop gives fresh insight into the perilous life of African-Americans in the slave era, where bounty hunters are never far away.
The torture inflicted on slaves and captured runaways is described bluntly, but the narrative remains decent. You are always anxious for Cora, wondering if she will ever be rid of the slave catcher, ever stop running away, find her mother or live free for more than a few months.
Whitehead weaves in other historic elements like the dangers faced by white people who aided runaways, the injustices committed against Native American people, forced sterilisation of black women and medical experiments on African-Americans that echoes the controversial Tuskegee Syphilis Study of the early 20th century.
You get a sense of the angst brought on by the Fugitive Slave Act where former slaves, even those living in the free Northern states, could legally be captured and returned to their old masters.
The chapters move from the present to backstories of different people, a strategy that sometimes interrupts the progression of the narrative.
There is something emotionally detached about Cora’s personality, her anger towards her mother and her attraction to Caesar. I understood the horrors she went through but didn’t always feel them, perhaps because she is written in the third person.
Like a rusty locomotive, the story moves at high speed then jerks into a slow crawl. And there are too many minor characters that are difficult to keep track of.
Nevertheless, it is a well-researched novel where surrealism and truth have been used to present a dark period of American history. Whitehead has written seven other books.
The Underground Railroad was on the reading list for President Obama and in Oprah’s Book Club. It won the 2016 National Book Award and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.