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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The underground railroad was a means by which slaves from the American Southern States were helped to escape and find freedom in the North. Making the railroad a concrete thing, with stations, tracks, engines, engineers and boxcars, is a daring move by Colson Whitehead. It has the effect of emphasising the hard work of building the network, maintaining it and it also exposes the vulnerability of the routes to freedom and the many ways to disrupt it.

The story of The Underground Railroad

This novel is Cora’s story. It tells of her life on the Randall’s cotton plantation in Georgia from which she is determined to escape. The difficulties in realising an escape encountered by Cora in each state she passes through form the bulk of this novel, with occasional short sections to reveal what happened to those who played a part in her journey. Spurring her on are the experiences of her grandmother, captured in Africa and a survivor of the fearsome middle passage. Cora’s own mother achieved notoriety, or a reputation, by being the only escapee not have been returned to the Randall’s place. There are men who make a living out of catching and returning slaves to their owners. And the owners themselves are without qualms when they punish returned slaves. They aim to deter others. Cora makes her bid for freedom, partly encouraged by her mother’s example and partly because another slave, Caesar, provides the opportunity and the moment.

It is quickly established that Cora cannot do this on her own, but nearly every one who meets and helps her is killed, often brutally and others become damaged as she makes her slow journey to freedom. This is a story of violence and inhumanity.

She comes across many different ways in which black women are enslaved. It begins with the backbreaking work on the plantation, and the law that casts the slave as the property of her owner. Her owner can dispose of her as he wishes. Randall sets the slave catcher, Ridgeway on Cora’s trail. Already eluded by her mother’s escape, Ridgeway develops a terrifying obsession with tracking down Cora. Their paths cross, she escapes, and again, until …

Cora finds sanctuary with sympathisers as she eludes Ridgeway. In South Carolina they are treating the black folks well, educating them, providing employment and offering healthcare. The healthcare is compromised, however, designed to sterilise slaves, so Cora moves on.

In North Carolina they have a policy of violent eradication of all black residents. Hidden in an attic Cora witnesses brutal executions of those who harbour escapees, and of the escapees themselves. Another escape, to a farm colony in Indiana, but the local people find it too threatening and a massacre takes place. Cora escapes the massacre because Ridgeway captures her.

At each moment of escape Cora must find the railroad platform, wait for a train, and travel with it to the next unknown destination. Ultimately it is the railroad that saves her from Ridgeway’s final attempt to recapture her.

Some reflections

This is an exciting story exposing the effects of an immoral set of beliefs. The story moves along briskly, but at times I did not want to read on because of what I feared would come next.

The questions posed by The Underground Railroad are important– for example, what forms of slavery are there beyond the plantation? What do white supremacist beliefs mean today? How can the world atone for such uprooting, such brutal treatment, such unspeakable acts? How is it that we continue to value humans differently, separating out people by the accident of birth, or differentiating between economic migrants and asylum seekers? What forms of slavery exist today? Is the work of a few dedicated railroad maintenance workers enough to keep people from being subjugated by others?

This is a powerful novel, which deserves the success it has been enjoying. In itself it is a strong argument for the importance of fiction to show us other worlds and experiences. Thanks to Ed for the recommendation and for lending me his copy.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016). Paperback version published by Fleet. 366pp

Winner of Pulitzer Prize for fiction 2017.

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