The Short Version: A slave woman named Cora runs away from the Georgia plantation where she is enslaved and finds that the Underground Railroad is, in fact, a literal railroad – and so begins a winding adventure towards freedom.
The Review: This isn’t going to be so much a review as a musing. I just don’t know how I can write a traditional review of this book in light of the last week.
See, I read this book in the days leading up to the election. Finished it three days before – but I only sat down to write the review three days after. And considering how viscerally I experienced the book, how tremendously potent I found it, I find it impossible to not think about this book in context of that bleak Tuesday night and the future it ushered in. It is impossible for me not to think about the cognitive dissonance of a world where this book is the favorite to win the NBA, the Pulitzer, the Rooster… and where Donald Trump has been elected President. The two things should not be able to exist in the same timeline and yet they do. And so here we are.
First, to the book. Perhaps it is because of Colson’s tremendous talent as an author. Perhaps it is because of the world we live in today, everything going on in the news and society. Perhaps it is just getting older, learning more. Perhaps it’s something else altogether, or a combination of these things. But for the first time in my life, the horrors of our American past have truly hit home to me. I feel them; not just think them. They are made not so much tangible as, for lack of a better term, understandable. They have context now, as opposed to just existing as some part of a historical record that I was aware of but did not truly comprehend. No text or piece of art has ever brought an actual understanding of slavery to me in the way that this book did – and that includes the first-person slave narratives I read in school (Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano) and 12 Years a Slave.
I think that’s as much due to the genuinely terrifying sequences that Cora is subjected to (her time in North Carolina is scarier than any Stephen King novel) as it is to Whitehead’s singularly breathtaking examination of the American spirit. I flagged about fifteen passages throughout the book but it was this one that I kept coming back to, spoken to Cora by the slave-catcher Ridgeway:
“I prefer the American spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the New, to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription – the American imperative.”
That, right there… that’s America, to its goddamn core. A belief that we – the white men of privilege – knew best. And that the rest, the women and the people of color and the natives of this land and the animals and the planet itself, could fall in line because this spirit knew best. And if you crossed us, you might not survive it. In fact, you almost certainly wouldn’t.
That arrogance, that single-minded belief in your own exceptionalism… it has infected us. It continues to course through our American veins as though rolling down the highways and railroads that still connect our nation. The magic of this book – or one of the magicks of it, more aptly – is that Whitehead is standing steely-eyed and holding the squirming present up for examination without ever once flashing forward or slipping into colloquial language or using any of the other things that might render this book a product of its time. He spends the entire book examining the past, even if it is a fictionalized/fantastical version of the past, and it is the mark of a great writer (and, perhaps, a great writer arriving at the perfect moment in time) that we can then use his work to better understand our present.
Look at the magnificence of the conceptualized Underground Railroad in this novel. A real bleeding train, traveling underground. The London Underground wouldn’t open until 1863 – and yet here we are, pre-Civil War, with a train (or, really, several of them) that run underground. There is a sense of wonder about this concept, a wonder that encapsulates the potential greatness that we (humanity) are capable of. But there is a dark side to it too, explained nowhere better than when Cora realizes the true meaning of her first conductor’s comment about the railroad’s windows showing the ‘true face of America.’ Cora, on a later leg of her journey, awakes and realizes: “There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.”
Less than a week ago, America chose darkness. It chose fear, hate, intolerance. I think of the North Carolina section of this book, where the state has (by decree) banned black people from its borders. I think of South Carolina, where Cora and Caesar think that they’ve found something peaceful and comfortable only to realize that the peace they’ve been shown is just a different mask of oppression and that they are still, unequivocally, treated as less than a white person. I think even of Indiana, a free state and a place of hope at the end of Cora’s long journey (except that it isn’t, truly, the end of her journey – and I thought of Kai Wilson’s The Devil in America when she realizes that to be true) and the restless desire to move forward, to move on, to separate those newcomers from the “original” arrivals.
I think of the way these stories put a shiver up my spine not because they are ghost stories but because they feel like we are one false step away from living them once again. It will look most like South Carolina, I would imagine, with a smiling face and a genteel demeanor that nonetheless hides a fundamental intolerance. I hope it might never look like North Carolina. But it might look like Ridgeway, calling his captured slaves “it” instead of by their actual names or genders. It might look like the man too cowardly to actually help, who instead loses his nerve right at the moment when he could’ve been a hero and who instead just safety pins his shirt, calling himself an ally but doing so only in the most shallow of ways.
I’ll conclude by coming back to the novel concretely, to mention a list of other things I loved. I loved the shock and surprise of the “skyscraper” moment in South Carolina. I loved the interstitial chapters that could double as standalone short stories, telling the tale of side characters Cora encountered throughout her journey. I loved the different stations of the Railroad, the way that they reflected the above-ground realities of their state. I loved Cora and how she was so vividly realized that anybody can and should see themselves in her, regardless of gender or skin tone. I loved the sneaky complexity of Ridgeway – the fact that he had a loyal and ostensibly free young black man working with him and how he treated that boy like his son, with echoes of other complex bigots like Andrew Jackson. I loved the way Whitehead breaks the reader’s heart again and again, but in such a way that it brings you to better and closer understanding of the realities of Cora’s life without seeming emotionally manipulative. I loved Whitehead’s decision not to conclude happily but to instead reflect reality: the struggle always continues, whether we like it or not.
And I loved the way that reading this book got me through a dark time – because although it was released pre-election, this may as well be the first great weaponized novel of the Trump presidency. It’s books like this, writers like this, spirits like this that we will need in order to fight and in order to heal.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. In this novel – his masterpiece, or at least his first masterpiece – Whitehead takes a scalpel and flays away the truths we supposedly hold to be self-evident in order to show the ways in which white people lie to themselves, how they obfuscate and contort to be able to sleep at night, how they justify racism and intolerance even in our present day. Because it hasn’t really changed. Nothing really has. The only thing we can do is continue to try, to strive, to do what we can to make the world a better place. In the same way that Citizen and Between the World and Me are required reading for every America, so too is this book. May we follow Whitehead’s lead down the tunnel towards a better future – or, at least, towards an unknown future that we hope will be better.