American author Colton Whitehead has already garnered a swag of accolades for his work – a Guggenheim and Whiting “genius” awards plus being short-listed for the Pulitzer – making his new novel, The Underground Railroad, highly anticipated. An excerpt was published in a special lift-out in The New York Times. But it was the book’s selection as the subject of Oprah’s Book Club that lit the “destination stratosphere” fuse.
His subject isn’t new. The underground railroad was the metaphorical name for the loose network of people and secret routes that helped slaves escape the antebellum south to the more benign northern states. First operational in the early 19th Century it was most active in the 1850s and early 1860s, and has been the subject of countless fiction (perhaps most notably Toni Morrison’s Beloved) and non-fiction, films, documentaries and scholarly research. What Whitehead does is give the railway an architectural structure, from the draughty platforms and precipitous staircases to the uncomfortable carriages fire breathing engines and metal tracks disappearing into a yawning darkness of tunnels lined with terrifying hope.
The novel focuses on Cora, a 19-year-old slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Abandoned as a 10-year-old after her mother ran away she has learned to survive on her own, in a system with the ethos that slaves have no intrinsic worth, only what ever their masters “in degrees of wickedness”. She has been raped and assaulted, seen men, women and children burned to death, had their hands and feet cut off. So when fellow slave Caesar says he has made contact with the underground railway and asks her to run away with him there is only a moment’s hesitation – the instinctive fear of moving beyond the tortuous known, relying on the unknown of others – before she agrees.
There is no idealised transition. Instant sanctuary. Things go wrong from the very start. Pursued by professional slave hunters, like the brutal Ridgeway and his assistant with his necklace of human ears, and in everyday danger of being running foul of the venomous anti-black sentiment that dominated, Cora quickly and without emotion discovers the lengths to which she is prepared to go to avoid capture.
She takes the railroad from state to state; South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana. There are moments of respite. Dangerous moments of dreaming. But even in those places where she initially is welcomed, like South Carolina with its open mingling of black and white, she finds a hard-hearted duplicity lurking in the shadows of apparent equality, like Cora’s curious job at the Museum of Natural Wonders and the concerned doctor who tries to persuade her of the medical and social benefits of surgery to prevent pregnancy.
Despite its harrowing subject, The Underground Railroad has a slightly surreal, fabulist, quality that surprises with its subtle inventiveness. It moves around in time, the first chapter acts as a kind of prologue, going back to the kidnapping of Cora’s grandmother by slave traders, and its tone alternates between brutalist matter-of-fact and alluringly poetical. At its heart it is a wonderful powerful story, full of action, gripping narrative and captivating characters. But with so much more.
The publication of The Underground Railroad, which had been the kernel of an idea since 2000, is timely. America has recently been particularly engaged in a passionate conversation on race, fuelled by the series of police killings of unarmed blacks, a rise in anti migrant sentiment and by various writings, notably Ta-nehisi Coates‘ uncompromising book, Between the World And Me, a literary “letter” to his son about the inherent perils of being black.
The Underground Railroad has already sparked important debate. Will it be a game changer? As Whitehead said in a recent interview with Vulture: “I don’t know how long our present conversation about the vulnerability of the black body will continue. Since we’re not changing the underlying causes, these moments are temporary, because our attention has always shifted elsewhere.”
The Underground Railroad is published by Fleet a Little,Brown imprint. Colson Whitehead’s other books include Zone One, Sag Harbor, The Colossus of New York and The Institutionalist.
Note: Early editions incorrectly called the book The Underground Railway. My apologies for the error.