The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Updated: Sep 8
Genre: Historical fiction
Content warning: depictions of graphic violence; instance of sexual assault; consensual non-graphic sex; use of racial slurs
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The Underground Railroad (2016, 336 pages) is the 6th novel by American writer Colson Whitehead and was a huge commercial and critical success, winning the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and spending several weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list. Set in pre-Civil War Georgia, the novel tells the story of Cora, the teenage female protagonist, and her escape from enslavement on a cotton plantation with Cesar, an enslaved man, via the Underground Railroad. Told from the third person perspective, the novel mixes historical fiction with magical realism and re-imagines the Underground Railroad as an actual railroad, complete with stations, timetables and set routes.
When Cesar, a new addition to the plantation’s enslaved workforce, first asks Cora whether she wanted to run away with him, she declined, “White man trying to kill you slow every day, and sometimes trying to kill you fast. Why make it easy for him?” But after receiving a brutal beating from one of the plantation’s sadistic owners, she decides to run away with Cesar, following in the footsteps of her mother who had run away years before. The couple then make their way to South Carolina via one of the trains that make up the Underground Railroad.
In South Carolina, Cora learns how to read, taking advantage of the state’s more “liberal” views concerning “Black uplift.” But Cora quickly learns that all is not as it seems in South Carolina and that even there, she is viewed as property that white officials “could do with as they pleased”. After a few months in South Carolina, Cora learns that she is being hunted by one of the most notorious slavecatchers in Georgia and is forced to flee to North Carolina. Then, after being forced to flee North Carolina as well, the book follows Cora’s perilous journey through Tennessee, Indiana and then finally, Missouri.
The Underground Railroad is an emotionally taxing read, especially for me, a Black woman whose ancestors were also enslaved and likely experienced trauma similar to Cora’s: sexual assault, sickness, torture, beatings, forced family separation and never-ending fear. Although the Underground Railroad does not shy away from describing the graphic violence that Black people suffered in the antebellum South, the violence is never gratuitous. Interestingly however, the novel takes an unsentimental view of much of the characters’ suffering, leading the reader to feel somewhat detached from the characters, particularly Cora: “There was an order of misery, misery ticked inside miseries, and you were meant to keep track”.
Throughout the novel, Whitehead punctuates the main narrative with chapters dedicated to characters connected to Cora in some way, for example: Cesar, Ajarry - Cora’s grandmother, Ridgeway - the slavecatcher and Ethel - the wife of a conductor on the Underground Railroad. I liked these chapters because they provided background on some of the novel’s most interesting characters and helped explain how they became involved in either slavery or the Underground Railroad. For example, the chapter about Ridgeway, the novel’s antagonist, explains how he became involved in slave catching: “the work attracted a type. In another country they would have been criminals, but this was America.”
A few things stood out to me as I read The Underground Railroad. First, I liked that the novel starts at the port of Ouidah, where Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry is imprisoned after being kidnapped from her African village along with her father: “Dahomeymen raiders kidnapped the men first, then returned to her village the next moon for the women and children marching them in chains to the sea two by two.” Whitehead then goes on to describe the Middle Passage and the number of times Ajarry was purchased and resold, with each transaction taking a little bit more of her dignity: “the white man’s scientists peered beneath things to understand how they worked.” It is unusual for slave narratives to start in Africa and I appreciated that Colson did this, because it highlighted the fact that Black people were not born to be slaves, they were regular people, living regular lives, before being kidnapped, transported far from home (never to return) and enslaved. Whitehead expertly narrates Ajarry’s life from living free and happy in her African village with her father, to dying on a cotton plantation half a world away: “Ajarry died in the cotton, the bolls bobbing around her like whitecaps on the brute ocean. The last of her village, keeled over in the rows from a knot in her brain, blood pouring from her nose and white froth covering her lips.”
Also, I liked Whitehead’s decision to have Cora travel through multiple states, so that the reader can see the different manifestations of Black oppression across the U.S., “stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.” With this state by state format, the reader experiences Cora’s fear and apprehension as she learns to adapt to her new situation in each state. This format highlights the throughline of cruelty running through the practice of slavery and anti-Blackness because no matter where Cora goes, she encounters the belief that, “if n*****s were supposed to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains.”
Whitehead's decision to include real ads for runaway enslaved people at the start of a few chapters was another good, yet sobering addition to the novel. It served to remind readers that although the book is fiction, Cora's story, or at least bits and pieces of it, was not rare or uncommon during that time. Also, it was clear from some of the ads that the runaway was probably more than just a "field hand" but someone with a close personal relationship with the slave owner. Those ads highlight the fact that slavery was not a detached slave owner - enslaved person relationship but one that was all too often very personal, making them particularly chilling to read: "Ran away from the subscriber on the 6th of February last, his Negro Girl Peggy. She is about 16 years of age, and is a bright mulatto, about the ordinary height, with straight hair and tolerable good features."
But there were a few things I didn’t like in the novel. For one thing, although I always rooted for Cora, and I think she was a well-written heroine, I felt somewhat detached from her. The reader is privy to some of Cora’s thoughts, but it is superficial because with the exception of her mother, Mabel, we don’t really know what Cora thinks of any of the other characters or about her situation. And considering all the trauma she has experienced, she is remarkably stoic, only expressing fear, anger or sadness a few times over the course of the novel.
The Underground Railroad is the second book I have read from Colson Whitehead, the first was The Nickel Boys: A Novel, which I loved and will review one of these days. The two novels share many similarities, for example, both are based on historical atrocities and are about protagonists who at first had no intention of fleeing their cruel and abusive environment, until prompted to do so by strong-willed companions. Nonetheless, the differences between these two books are what makes The Nickel Boys, in my opinion, the better book. For instance, the surrealism of the Underground Railroad, which includes some jumping around in time, and the nature of the plot where Cora can find herself in completely different circumstances from one chapter to the next, keeps the reader on edge. And, as a reader, you are never quite sure what to make of each new character because in a few cases, you only learn about their motivations afterward. In contrast, The Nickel Boys is a deceptively simple and straightforward story that packs a powerful punch.
However, I prefer The Underground Railroad to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer: A Novel, another slave narrative that features a protagonist who uses the historic Underground Railroad to escape enslavement in the South. But although both books use varying degrees of magic surrealism, Coates’ depiction of slavery in The Water Dancer is the most fantastical thing in either book and, is a bigger mischaracterization of historical facts than Whitehead’s decision to make the Underground Railroad an actual railroad. I think that Whitehead’s book is more similar to Marlon James’ The Book of Night Women but although the former is far less violently graphic, James’ book is ultimately a more enjoyable read.
Overall, I give The Underground Railroad a 4 out of 5 stars rating, because although I enjoyed the book and found it interesting and engaging, my inability to form an emotional attachment to Cora and the ambivalent ending left me wanting more (and not in a good way). Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book because it depicts a very violent and vicious period in America’s history with the gravity that it deserves but which is missing from the American history taught in schools.