It’s hard to pass up a book that was the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner in 2016, but having read enough about Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” to know it was not an easy read, I hesitated picking it up. I’m sure glad I eventually did. Yes, the overriding theme is the unimaginable hardship of a slave’s life and the atrocity of treatment towards them, but it is a unique and important work about that shameful period of American history.
Whitehead tells interviewers that when he decided, many years ago, to write a novel about slavery in the South during the mid-1800s, he read some of the thousands of slave narratives that had been collected by the government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) project in the 1930s. Those accounts, he reports, were very “matter of fact” about their daily life. His goal became to create the most complete, vivid and truthful picture in existence of what life was like for a slave.
Readers follow Cora, a young slave in Georgia, who runs away from the cotton plantation that was the only home she knew with a man who had begged her to escape with him. They head toward the swampy “black waters,” their only hope to hide, as they make their way to the house of Mr. Fletcher, the white man Cora’s companion Caesar had heard about. Caesar had been promised the man would help them move on northward and eventually to freedom. Fletcher was from Pennsylvania and “abhorred slavery as an affront before God.” He is the first of several helpers on the underground railroad. They are the true heroes of the book, risking their lives to help free the captives.
Here Whitehead plays with the term “underground railroad.” He admits being disappointed as a child to learn it was only a figurative term. So, Cora’s escape route connects her with “agents” who take her to actual rails dug deep in the southern soil with an awaiting train. Without any detail to disturb the image, Whitehead allows her to move to a different state where another helper is ready to receive, hide and feed her until it is time to move to the next stop.
Another plot device Whitehead uses is arbitrarily assigning to each state where Cora lands a different approach to dealing with the growing population of black men and women. Cora is told by her protector that South Carolina is a state where they are more forward-thinking and where many former slaves are freemen. In contrast, Cora hears that North Carolina clings to old ways and any black man or woman seen walking around can be stopped, charged, punished, jailed or returned to his owner.
This singular, award-winning novel is a must-read to put perspective on today’s lingering racial issues, be they on the football field or city streets. Highly recommended.