The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Winner of the National Book Award (and more recently, the Pulitzer) [and now Arthur C. Clarke Award], Whitehead's novel is a speculative fiction alternate history. Instead of being just a metaphor, there is literally a railroad underground, a series of tunnels with tracks and trains underneath the Southern states, and north to at least Indiana. Those tunnels are not the only speculative part of the book though, since they also seem to be time portals, as the protagonist journeys to different states undergoing variations of society's attempt to deal with the "Negro problem." Beginning in Georgia, Cora's story tells of the horrors of plantation life, then after her escape with fellow slave Caesar, she witnesses a more "progressive" approach in South Carolina, an even more oppressive approach in North Carolina, eventually making it to a collective farm in Indiana. But no matter how far she travels, no matter how many sympathetic White people help her, she can never escape the brutality and senselessness of the institution of slavery, which still casts a shadow across all race relations in this country.
The description of the situation in South Carolina gave me the first indication that the railroad itself was not the only speculative angle in the story. Cora describes a twelve story office building with a modern elevator, so that could not be happening in the same time frame as her escape from the Randall plantation. The events in North Carolina are similar to what occured after the Civil War and Emancipation, not before. It seems apparent the author was examining many different historical periods and tying them into one story. Although written in third person, I think it may be Cora telling her own story from an omniscient viewpoint. In the beginning, grammar and syntax are crude, later becoming more sophisticated, possibly reflecting Cora's knowledge gained from reading. Then again, at least parts might be written by someone else, maybe one of her descendants. There are flashbacks to what happened to Caesar after he and Cora were separated, as well as the fate of Cora's mother, the first person known to have escaped Randall. Only if Cora later journeyed back to the South, or interviewed someone who knew of these events, would she know of them, and based on where she is at the end of the book, I don't see that happening. She is traveling west to the new frontier, but I'm sure her past will always be with her.
This is a powerful and disturbing book, and anger-inducing, at least to anyone with compassion in their heart. It is also a story that needs to be told, continuously. These events from our past should never be forgotten. Highly recommended, although I am sure the ones who need to read it most are the ones who won't bother.
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