‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead (2016) – 306 pages
‘The Underground Railroad’ is a novel about the United States’ most brutal atrocity, human slavery. If a slave ran away from the plantation but was caught, the white slave owner could chop off his or her foot. The white slave owner could drag a couple of the fourteen year old girls out behind the woodshed to breed them and invite his teenage sons to join in the fun. The white slave owner could do whatever he wanted to his slaves. The slaves were his property.
What makes ‘The Underground Railroad’ powerful is that it is not an impassioned plea against slavery, but instead an objective enactment of the details of life for the slaves. We see slavery through the eyes of the slave Cora whose grandmother Ajarry was captured in Africa and shipped to the Randall plantation in Georgia. Cora’s mother Mabel ran away from the plantation when Cora was ten never to be heard from again. The plantation is now divided up between the two Randall sons, the northern half to James and the southern half to his younger brother Terrance.
“James was as ruthless and brutal as any white man, but he was the portrait of moderation compared to his younger brother. The stories from the southern half were chilling in magnitude if not in particulars.”
When James dies, and Terrance takes over the whole plantation, Cora and her friend Caesar decide to run away.
The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses of people who would help the runaway slaves to escape to free states. The conceit of Colson Whitehead is that there really was a railroad and train running underground which will take runaway slaves to different parts of the country. Thus the sections of the novel after Cora and Caesar run away take place in different states which are stops on this imaginary railroad: South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and finally the free state of Indiana. Each state has its own severe brutal racists, including Indiana. Ever present is the slave catcher Ridgeway who is following just behind Cora and Caesar to catch them and bring them back to the Randall plantation.
In actual fact, very few of the slaves in the deep southern states of the United States could ever successfully run away what with all the slave catchers and night riders and other assorted vicious folk working in league with the despicable white slave owners. The Underground Railroad did not operate that far south.
Every location that Cora stops has its own cast of characters, and the story gets somewhat diffuse as Cora and we travel from state to state.