Thursday, 25 May 2017

The Underground Railway by Colson Whitehead

Barack Obama, Oprah, and the Pulitzer Prize panel have all declared the Underground Railroad a winner, and I found this novel about the reality of slavery both gripping and haunting.

The Underground Railroad was a network of sympathetic and brave people, willing to help runaway slaves escape to the safety of the north in pre-civil war America.  However the underground railroad is not just an historical metaphor here, but used literally, adding a clever and creative element of magical realism to the story.  Whitehead has said in an interview that he had the idea to make the railway real because American children learning history often mistakenly think the Underground Railroad was an actual railroad.

The main character is a young slave called Cora, who is an outcast even with other slaves working on a cotton plantation in Georgia.  Cora's mother had previously run away, causing Cora to be sent to a separate compound reserved for those with illness, disability, or no family.
Cora's emerging puberty and lack of family makes her vulnerable to being preyed upon by both fellow slaves and white men; so when Caesar, a young slave who has come from another plantation, tells her about the Underground Railroad, the two plan to escape.
The pair initially spend time in North Carolina. They are treated well and provided with jobs and hostel accommodation.  Eventually however, they are exposed to disturbing goings-on: black women are encouraged to be surgically sterilized and men are used as part of medical research studying untreated syphilis.
Along the way Cora also spends time working as a living exhibit in a museum, as a maid and hiding in an attic for weeks.  All the while she is pursued by Ridgeway, a notorious and relentless slave catcher.

The real Underground Railroad movement was not as organised as Whitehead's, but he extensively researched historical interviews and testimony, and all events are based on fact. Historic wanted notices for runaway slaves are used with chilling effect throughout the novel.
The content of this book means the depictions of violence and cruelty are powerful and shocking; but also described in a matter-of-fact way that is not gratuitous.
As a young man Whitehead experienced police harassment for no other reason than being a African American; in reading The Underground Railroad we can begin to understand the ongoing legacy of racial inequality.

Reviewed by Katrina

Catalogue link:  The Underground Railroad

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