This is an extremely disturbing novel for several reasons. First is its subject matter and second is what Whitehead does with his story. The Underground Railroad is more than merely the tale of one young woman’s escape from slavery on a cotton plantation in Georgia: it’s an acutely sensitive examination of racism and exclusion, of hypocrisy and hate, and of hope and endurance.
The narrative follows Cora, who is already isolated by some of her fellow workers on the plantation, who consents to flee Georgia with fellow slave Caesar and head for freedom in the north. They take the underground railroad; in Whitehead’s novel, this is a real railroad running on tracks underneath the various states it crosses. Cora’s journey takes her to the Carolinas, Tennessee, Indiana and the North. Along the way, she experiences hope and exhilaration and enormous cruelty. The vicious slave catcher Ridgeway is on their track, and his only real failure in the past was his inability to find Cora’s mother Mabel who is believed to have actually achieved freedom. The novel ends with Cora joining a group of wagons heading for St. Louis and the trail to California.
Not only does Cora’s fantastic—I use the word advisedly—journey take her through states, it also takes the reader through time. For example, the eugenics programs and the syphilis research Whitehead refers to actually took place long after the antebellum period in which Cora makes her journey. In some ways, the novel feels like a collage of incidents from American history held together by the narrative of Cora’s flight.
Does this historical inaccuracy undercut the effect of the work or contribute to its depth? The novel does, indeed, demonstrate just how flexible and powerful fiction can be. Fiction can transcend space and time. Fiction creates new worlds, plays with words. It turns the idea of an underground railroad into a literal railroad complete with stations running under the ground. It can build skyscrapers where there aren’t actually any. It can move events centuries. It can challenge preconceptions. It can be a cry for justice and equality. However, having an audience take your fantasy for fact may be even more troubling than having an audience miss one’s irony in satirical writing. Despite the fact of The Underground Railroad’s often being compared with Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, it lacks satire’s hyperbole. The horrors described in the novel are not shocking because they are gross overstatement drawing attention to the ridiculousness of the object of the satire; they are shocking because they are true. The beatings, lynchings, rapes, murders, and betrayals described by Whitehead happened, but not always as and when Whitehead places them.
My concerns are somewhat addressed by Juan Gabriel Vásquez in his August 5, 2016 review of the novel for The New York Times. Vásquez reminds us of “the myriad ways in which black history has too often been stolen by white narrators”; he goes on to say, “Whitehead’s novel is constantly concerned with these matters of narrative authenticity and authority, and so too with the different versions of the past we carry with us.” A prime example of this difference is the history of Cora’s mother, Mabel. What Cora, Caesar, and Ridgeway believe about Mabel is actually not what Whitehead reveals to the reader near the end of the novel. Vásquez believes the novel to be “Whitehead’s own attempt at getting things right, not by telling us what we already know but by vindicating the powers of fiction to interpret the world.” He goes on to assert, “In its exploration of the foundational sins of America, it is a brave and necessary book” (“In Colson Whitehead’s Latest, the Underground Railroad Is More Than a Metaphor,” The New York Times 5 August 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/14/books/review/colson-whitehead-underground-railroad.html?_r=0. 20 February 2017).
The National Book Award judges’ assessment of the work is that in detailing “the grotesque barbarities of . . . [United States’] history” Whitehead gives “us an electrifying narrative of the past, profoundly resonant with the present” (http://www.nationalbook.org/nba2016winner_f_whitehead-underground-railroad.html#.WKtYeRjMzq0 20 February 2017). True indeed. As I commented earlier, comparisons between The Underground Railroad and Gulliver’s Travels are quite common. For me, however, the work that came to mind was Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. Here, too, the naïve picara endeavours to find her way to autonomy. As she passes through each stage of a game that is apparently without real rules or order, she struggles to make sense of each individual scene in which she finds herself. Just as each square offers Alice a slightly different world vision and experience, so, too, each state or stage of Cora’s journey offers a different perspective on inter-race relations and politics, each one ultimately as bewildering as the last.
Alice discovers that even as a queen she is still in a world where the rules work against her, but Alice wakes up from her dream. Cora’s journey is the stuff of nightmare. Cora is on a wagon to St. Louis to join a trail to California. What will she find there? Whitehead doesn’t exactly finish the story. How can he? The story of inequality and oppression remains unfinished, in need of resolution.