Genre: Historical Fiction, Black Literature
Narrative Style: Third person, largely chronological
Synopsis: Cora isn’t sure at first when Caesar asks her to escape with him. He tells her about the Underground Railroad which is not just a metaphor in Whitehead’s book but an actual network of stations and trains. Even though she is an outcast on the plantation, she still hesitates. The punishment if caught is likely to be horrific. But then things grow more unpleasant on the plantation and she decides to go with him and they escape. At each stop, Whitehead shows a different aspect of the horror of slavery.
Time on shelf: Not very long. Last year, I read Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys and was blown away. I bought this not long after.
Whitehead starts his story on the Randall cotton plantation where Cora was born. Her mother, Mabel had escaped when Cora was younger, leaving her daughter behind. The only thing that Cora has in the world is a small plot of land and when someone tries to take it from her, she attacks him and is made to live with other outcast slaves, in Hob, away from everyone else. She has already suffered a huge amount of abuse when Caesar first asks her to escape but still she refuses at first, the risk seeming too great. Caesar persists and they make their escape.
They very nearly don’t make it. In the swamps outside of the plantation, some of Randall’s men catch up with them. In the fight that follows, Cora accidentally kills a teenage boy making it even more urgent that they manage to escape. It is a relief, albeit short-lived, when they make it to the first station of the railway and manage to get the train to South Carolina.
Of course, there troubles do not end there. Whitehead uses the railroad to show the many horrors that white people have visited on black people – not just slavery. At first, in South Carolina, all seems well. Cora has a new name and a job, she is learning to read and seems happy. The white people seem kind and caring. However, it soon becomes sinister as Cora is given a job as a ‘type’ in a living museum which gives a false, positive version of slavery. Free medical treatment given at the local hospital turns out to be governmental experimentation aiming to find a cure for syphillis and the women are encouraged towards voluntary sterilisation. The whites that seemed so kind actually still have a racist view of black people as childlike and less than themselves. Cora decides that she cannot stay. This is the start of a horrific journey for her.
Whitehead uses her journey to inform the reader of many terrible events – Cora becomes trapped in the attic of a station agent, unable to stand or make any noise, a doctor raids black graves for corpses to use in anatomy classes, in Georgia, every Friday, they have a festival which ends with the hanging of a black person – and it becomes more than just Cora’s story, more than just a story about slavery, it becomes a history of racial injustice in America.
This isn’t an easy read. And nor should it be. Like Kindred by Octavia Butler, this is unflinching in its detail. I have read some reviews that say that Whitehead’s tone is flat and it is true that it is not overly emotional but I think that it works very well given that this is a history. There is no need for it to be overly emotional when the stark facts speak so loudly. If Whitehead had shown the level of upset and horror that these events warrant, I think it would have been unreadable. Instead, the reader is given a calm voice to guide them and show them exactly what the problem is.
Another criticism is that Cora is not a fully developed character. I agree but I think it is deliberate on Whitehead’s part. She has no free will. Things happen to her. She has no power to change that or to do anything other than constantly react. Her journey is a representation of African American experience and she is a product of that experience. At the end of the novel, when she is finally free, she makes the decision of who to ride with. This is the first real decision of her life.
I enjoyed this book a lot more that Kindred where I struggled to suspend my disbelief. I couldn’t put this down. Definitely one of the best reads I’ve had in a long time.