“Once Mabel ran, Cora thought of her as little as possible. After landing in South Carolina, she realized that she had banished her mother not from sadness but from rage. She hated her. Having tasted freedom’s bounty, it was incomprehensible to Cora that Mabel had abandoned her to that hell.”
Cora is a third-generation slave born on the Randall cotton plantation in Georgia. She has been a stray since the age of ten, when her mother became the only slave to ever escape the plantation, evading an infamous bounty hunter in the process. Since then, Cora has lived in Hob, the cabin for outcast slaves rejected even by their own people. So when Caesar approaches her about running North, Cora assumes it is a joke, or worse, a trap. The punishment for even discussing escape could be death. But Caesar has a connection to the Underground Railroad, and when the balance of power on the Randall plantation shifts, running starts to seem like an option worthy of consideration. Via the lines of the Underground Railroad, Cora will live many lives after she escapes Randall, but the shadow of slavery will pursue her wherever she goes.
In Colson Whitehead’s imagining, the railroad that spirits Cora and Caesar to freedom is real and literal, rather than metaphorical. However, this is as far as Whitehead takes it; the railroad is a tool that enables him to transport Cora easily from place to place, through the different incarnations of the Black experience of America. He does not spend his time developing the premise of the railroad, or linger on the journey, though there is a nod to the fact that building and ventilating such a network would be a mighty feat of engineering. Rather, the railroad is a curious detail that adds atmosphere to the story, and facilitates Cora’s development as a character in the various chapters of her life. Whitehead delivers his fantastic additions in a matter-of-fact tone that causes them to blend seamlessly into the more factual aspects of the narrative, as he presents the horrors of slavery with equal directness.
The Underground Railroad is divided into episodes punctuated by the steps of Cora’s journey towards the promised freedom of the North. It is not a story delineated by strict notions of time; Whitehead freely borrows episodes and details from later periods to create amalgams. The trip from Georgia to South Carolina is not just a crossing of a state line, but in many ways takes Cora and Caesar into the concerns of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century free Blacks, confronted with the eugenics movement and medical experimentation on non-consenting parties. Across the border again, into North Carolina, Whitehead conjures a white supremacist separatist state where Blacks can be executed on sight. Here we find echoes of the Holocaust, and Anne Frank’s sojourn in her Amsterdam attic, as well as Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Although Whitehead plays fast and loose with the facts, he does so in a way that condensed the impact of the real events that inspired his fictions and elaborations. After South Carolina, there is a sense of dread that hangs over the book. Freedom feels elusive, perhaps even delusional, with each new fresh start less hopeful than the last. While starting over from each new location and perspective was occasionally tiresome, the technique was effective in building that sense of dread, and the niggling question about whether Cora can ever truly be free in a country built on the back of slave labour. When we leave Cora on the road, her next destination and chapter unwritten ahead of her, I wanted to believe she might still find true freedom, but could no longer quite bring myself to believe it could be true. In this way, The Underground Railroad has haunted me long past the final page.
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