Colson Whitehead has written “The Underground Railroad,” the story of Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation run by the Randalls, father and sons, in Georgia around 1850. Cora’s womanhood has just come into flower and two hands from the plantation drag her behind the smokehouse and violate her. Older women sew her up afterward.
Life there is beyond miserable. Cora is encouraged by Caesar, recently purchased in Virginia by the Randalls, to escape and go north with him via the Underground Railroad.
At first Cora demurs. But Caesar persists. “I’m going soon, and I want you. For good luck.”
Cora replies, “I ain’t trying to get killed … by patrollers or snakes … White man trying to kill you slow every day and sometimes trying to kill you fast. Why make it easy for him?”
These are the griefs that Cora lives with that precipitate her decision, finally, to go north via the Underground Railroad. It was a choice of “escape or die.”
The railroad in this book isn’t the one we usually think of for slaves going north, that is, the historical route comprised of a series of safe houses and intricate physical routes to avoid detection.
Instead, Whitehead’s railroad is a larger concept, beyond metaphor, a narrative of a broken down railroad that Cora and Caesar use. They are taken to a station for the first time by a congenial white man, Mr. Fletcher. He’s a shopkeeper in town who admires Caesar’s whittling. He hides them in his horse-drawn cart, covered with a blanket.
Cora is an adept listener and observer as well as a woman of action in her travels. She is agile and strong, earlier killing a young white boy who was trying to capture her.
Eventually, Cora and Caesar arrive at the first “depot” of the train, below ground in a barn in the country.
The caretaker of the “station”, Llumbly, takes them underground with a lantern down some stairs. Below, the tunnel is gigantic, perhaps 20 feet tall. There, they wait for a train north. There is more than one train coming. One arrives in an hour, the other in six hours. Llumbly doesn’t know where the trains are going, other than to say “not the same place.” Anxious, they take the first train.
That train is comprised of the engine and one empty car in rickety shape, “with bales of hay, dead mice, and bent nails” inside. It’s not a sleek contraption. Still, the train is a conjecture fully realized by Whitehead, perhaps reminding one of Harry Potter’s train to Hogwarts, but entirely without frills. Whitehead describes the Underground Railroad this way:
“The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light colored stones in an alternating pattern …. The steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus.”
In this respect, “The Underground Railroad” is a historical novel propelled with a fictional twist.
It is brutality imagined and engined by pistons of rapacious cruelty on plantations that shunted its intense movement away from the South. The novel describes the courage of slaves, and the dangers they encountered trying to escape the cotton fields of bondage and racism in antebellum South. The train is an exercise in magical realism come to the rescue, a la Marquez and Allende.
When they first step out into the sunlight from the train below ground, they are in South Carolina. Cora looks up “at a skyscraper and reeled, wondering how far she had traveled.” She and Caesar are given a new name by those helping escaped slaves. Hers is: Bessie Carpenter. Caesar’s name is now Christian Markson. They are still runaways, rehearsing their cognomens that indicate they have been purchased from a bankruptcy hearing in North Carolina.
On her journey north Cora, aka Bessie, experiences the help of abolitionists, agents of the Underground Railroad, freed blacks – all the while pursued by slave catchers like Arnold Ridgeway and government agents. Ridgeway’s imperative about a live body is: “if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent.” This is his “American Imperative,” as he calls it.
In their passage north, they come and go as states give them different insights into what was the American experience of 225 years ago.
South Carolina, for example, was an agreeable place and “Bessie” and “Christian” stayed for a while, enjoying jobs and education, even an evening of music, that is, until Ridgeway caught up with them. Later in South Carolina, some Irish and German workers began picking cotton replacing slaves. They were paid a pittance, but could pay off their contracts that had brought them from Europe. Owners merely switched the fuel that moved the pistons.
Thus, the variation of what the two of them observed going north runs the gamut from a white supremacist enclave in North Carolina, to eugenics experiments on slaves, to a black separatist encampment in Indiana. Not many different places were different shades of gray.
As a reader, you might wonder what flight of imagination conjured up the railroad, given its more common definition. I don’t have an answer to that, other than to say that this is an unusual book with a meditative value so strong that one doesn’t mind its “Gulliver’s Travels”-like elements, strange and unusual, that are part of it.
There is a rough magic to “The Underground Railroad.” It punctures the vicious and false economic and anti-human lies of slavery’s clutch, “the ruthless engine of cotton that required its fuel of African bodies.”
I asked myself, how does Whitehead summon up such creative power to carry this distressing story so successfully? I’m not sure. If you are a black reader, it’s something that you carry with you every day, a sense of having to justify yourself no matter what your accomplishments. Try getting a cab in parts of Manhattan. If you’re a Caucasian reader, it’s harder to sympathize because you’ve been born with a sense of entitlement that you may not even recognize after a while.
This is not a special pleading. It seems a fact of life even today in America. Whitehead knows this all this and more.
Sometimes artists sense the source of their creative juices, sometimes not. Words often come upon one while writing, almost effortlessly, if the mood is right.
Part of the frame of mind for Whitehead, the “mood” you might say, is the music he listens to as he writes. He mentions this in his acknowledgements: “David Bowie is in every book, and I always put on ‘Purple Rain’ and ‘Daydream Nation’ when I write the final pages; so thanks to him and Prince and Sonic Youth.”
(I haven’t tried these specific musical prompts while writing, but Whitehead’s example is something to emulate, if it appeals. What can you lose?)
Whitehead, a Harvard graduate and Pulitzer Prize finalist, is the author of earlier best-sellers, “The Noble Hustle,” “Zone One,” “Sag Harbor,” “The Intuitionist,” “John Henry Days,” “Apex Hides the Hurt” and a collection of essays, “The Colossus of New York.” These are a zeitgeist of books, clearly different from one another, a tribute to Whitehead’s largesse of spirit and world view.
Our author writes for the New York Times Magazine. It was a surprise to me that, under the aegis of the NYT Magazine, the newspaper published a long excerpt of his “The Underground Railroad.” It appeared this month in that paper. Its publication may be a reflex of that paper’s administration feeling it had underreported minority material in the last hundred years. If so, it’s a terrific “mea culpa.”
This book is featured on Oprah’s Book Club as well. It’s been made available a month early, August instead of September, to book sellers in anticipation of a rush to purchase. Get in line for this novel, disquieting at times but important reading for all Americans.
Cora’s story reminds us that, even now, we are brothers and sisters drawn closer “across the eternity of her servitude.”
The Underground Railroad
By Colson Whitehead
Michael D. Langan is a longtime book reviewer for The Buffalo News.