The Underground Railroad was a network of safe houses and sympathisers which ferried slaves from the south of America to the free states or Canada in the 19th century. In this novel, Whitehead masterfully takes the metaphorical railroad and turns it into a physical, breathing thing which frames the escape of two slaves, Cora and Cesar, from the wretched, inhumane horror of the Randall plantation.
Cora has misgivings at first about escaping, as she recalls her mother’s previous escape and the abandonment of her daughter. Whitehead manages to capture this emotional turmoil subtly and contrast it with the cat-o’-nine-tails fury of the plantation. The vast area of the plantation gives way to the miniscule scrap of land that Cora tends and guards jealously. The life of a slave is documented in detail, their affairs and feuds, their language and smiles all in the shadow of the plantations horror. The reader is never spared the grisly terror of the plantation. Hands are cut off, slaves are beaten to the bone, Cora is gang-raped, and captured escapees are tortured to death. Whitehead doesn’t shield the reader from these horrors but he does offer us Cora and before her Mabel and the light of freedom that drives them to try to escape.
There is a finality to Whitehead’s writing that is both jarring and alluring. At no stage is the chase romanticised. He doesn’t ask us to understand Ridgeway — the slave hunter who is relentlessly hunting Cora because her mother slipped away from him years ago. Nor does he try to craft any daring or unlikely escapes. He deftly carves character and plot, and exposes the terror of slavery, in one swoop.
As Cora makes her way across the States, she encounters sympathisers and friends, manipulators and murderers. The reader is left with an uneasy feeling whenever she settles, the spectre of the evil hunting her always floating above.
The narrow narrative of a slave catcher chasing a slave is expanded to encompass the history of African tribes being raided for labour and the social and economic impact of slavery in the south.
Whitehead plants the seed of the American Civil War in painting this picture. The South is relentless in its exploitation and while Whitehead beautifully constructs slave sympathisers, he brutally sweeps them away in a flurry of vengeful violence.
One of the great strengths of the book is Whitehead’s ability to race to an inevitable conclusion at the outset of a section and make us retrace the steps taken to reach that point.
He is at pains to point out the finality of slavery, the inevitability of violence that will follow, the swift, horrid retribution of the plantation yet all the while he beautifully documents the barely believable bravery of the slaves evading capture and trying to find a place in the world.
Whitehead manages to convey all of this in a novel for everyone. His language is one of the everyday yet it still retains its lyrical power. It is a plain, brutal story told with finesse by a writer at the peak of his powers.