I’m not a huge fan of what I call road trip stories, the ones where main characters are plunked down in a strange new world and must find their way home. Books like The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland where we’re constantly having to adjust to the odd rules of the different fantastical locations and deal with the supposedly quaint but more often creepy and annoying inhabitants. Neil Gaiman did it well in Neverwhere, other than that, meh. I’m just not into whimsy.
So, when I heard that Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad was an actual subway system and the protagonist “encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey”, well, I put off reading it for a couple years. Between the comparison to Gulliver’s Travels and use of words like ‘adventure’ and ‘odyssey’, it sounded too cutesy. Like the Polar Express meets the dehumanizing institution of slavery. But, as with other tomes on the list, the book jacket doesn’t do the real story justice.
The Pulitzer Prize winner (2018 Reading Challenge) focuses on Cora, a rightfully bitter scrapper who lives her life in survival mode. When fellow slave Caesar presents the chance to run, she takes it. But Cora isn’t an ordinary runaway. Her mother is the only runaway renowned slave catcher Ridgeway has never caught and returned. And so, to him, Cora is a symbol of redemption. Recovering her will recover his ego so he is relentless in his pursuit.
And that’s what the book jacket should have focused on.
Much has been made about Whitehead’s choice to make the Underground Railroad an actual train, but it ultimately doesn’t affect the story. She only rides it a few times. It’s underground, so she doesn’t see the world rolling by. Missing a train doesn’t seem to have many negative consequences. Another one will come along. In fact, she ends up in an abandoned station and despite all odds, a train comes along. The train is reduced to unnecessary gimmick.
The real story is heavy and sad and beautifully written. Whitehead’s unsentimental writing style fits perfectly with Cora’s detached and deadened outlook. Abandoned, ostracized and abused, Cora has no reason to look at the bright side of life. She confronts what’s in front of her and absorbs it without flinching.
Forgoing linear timelines, Whitehead imprints historical events, some decades in the future, into Cora’s world. The Tuskegee Syphilis studies and forced sterilizations happen in Pre-Civil War North Carolina. A Rosewood Massacre-esque tragedy happens in a place Cora finds sanctuary. At one point, her life mirrors that of Linda Brent, the protagonist of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
This was a difficult but compelling read that left me drained. Filled with disturbing events and heartbreaking revelations it still ends on as positive a note as a story like this could. Whitehead’s precise insight to and scrutiny of slavery illuminates the absurdity of a world that allowed the institution and all its trappings to exist. It doesn’t wallow in the misery of what has been. It reminds the reader of what has been overcome.