••• The International Writers Magazine: Reviews
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Published by Fleet 2017
ISBN 978 0708 898406
Winner of the Pulizer Prize for Fiction 2017
Sam North review
Sometimes you read something so harrowing you can’t find the right words to describe it. For Colson Whitehead to take the words ‘Underground Railroad’ so literally and fashion a whole network of rails and locomotives that ply undetected underground in the USA well before locomotives had even been invented is audacious to say the least. Who’d dare to do that in any other historical novel that lays claim to be a truth about slavery? But the fantastic, wishful thinking at the heart of this brutal novel is no fantasy. The heroine Cora is indomitable, indestructible. A woman proud and brave, seemingly fearless in the defense of the smallest patch of land to grow her vegetables, seeks, like any slave, a way out, a path to freedom from the heartless crushing life on a plantation. Another slave, Caesar, one who can read and use his hands, plants the seed of hope in Cora’s heart and after she is mercilessly whipped defending a boy she is at last ready to flee, just like her mother Mabel, before her, who left her behind the day she ran.
Caesar knows a man who knows a way to the station, and others willing to help the plight of the cursed sons of Ham. Cora knows only too well how the bible is used to justify their enslavement.
Whitehead doesn’t bother with the lies of happy slaves happy to sing and pick cotton for the Master in the big house. He knows from countless testimonies that life was short, brutal, wicked, and vile and those that couldn’t cope were either traded on or died in the fields. The extreme harsh reality of slavery is still with us. Ask the Yazidi women traded in the sex slave markets in the Middle East for IS pleasure. Where is their Underground Railroad?
Cora and Caesar escape to the benign climes of South Carolina where they find refuge and temporary dignity. Only, as Cora begins to discover, all is not as it seems and the white folks have plans to ‘reduce’ the black population. All the time Cora is a wanted woman, for murder no less; a white boy died in her first escape. When the bounty hunters come again, she flees once more, only to be trapped in an attic prison in North Carolina whilst others not so lucky are strung up on ‘Freedom Road’.
There’s no shrinking from the violent consequences of slavery, but this is not an exploitative novel, just the raw graphic, unreasoned insanity of white rule. This is what America First means. Entitlement, treaties with gullible natives who believed their words were true. The black man transported and worked to death for no reward and even if they buy their ‘freedom’ it turns out to be an illusion.
Reading about Cora and Caesar and all the others trapped in this fetid, cruel world is not by any means ‘comforting’. It is a painful yet gripping read. All the time you are rooting for Cora to survive, to get up once again, to run once more, defeat the very determined bounty hunter Ridgeway.
All the time I was reading Underground Railroad I kept thinking that even after all this, after emancipation, Obama’s presidency, we end up with another alleged white supremacist as President, as if we have learned nothing.
The railway, whether a metaphor, or real as in this novel, it doesn’t matter, it was real enough to those on the plantations who dreamt of another life in the non-slave states. Cora’s journey will stay with you for a very long time, the stains of the past can never be washed away. Read this brilliant work and weep, but do read it. Amazon link here
© Sam North - July 2017
author of Diamonds - The Rush of '72