Reviewed by Lucy Unwin
This is not a historical novel. Not just because the facts of slavery in pre-Civil War America are strained through the wonderful, allegorical, imagination of an expert story-teller (the railroad of the title is not the metaphor of history books, but real steam trains in real tunnels). But also because it’s a book about right now. Not explicitly – but elliptically, powerfully, wonderfully.
At one point, a flash-forward sees an ex-slave shake her head at a description of the “Great War in Europe” – because, in her words, “The Great War had always been between the white and the black. It always would be.”
The character was speaking at a time before a black President was even conceivable, with slavery in still in living memory, but author Colson Whitehead is saying it right now. Not just in this line, but throughout the book. The Underground Railroad may be set over 150 years ago, but it was written in the era of #blacklivesmatter and that context feels as relevant to the core of this book as the historical one.
The story tells of Cora; granddaughter of Ajarry, brutally kidnapped and shipped to America before being repeatedly bought and sold and eventually dying on the plantation, and daughter of Mabel, who journeyed in the opposite direction – mythically escaping the plantation, never to been found.
A good chunk of the book chronicles life on the Randall Plantation, and Cora’s precarious position there. The descriptions of slave life are undoubtedly grim, and the violence is truly horrific, but it isn’t dwelled upon, it’s just there – a fact about life, something to know, to try not to avert your eyes from, but not to linger on either. As it should be.
She escapes the plantation thanks to the secret network of rough hewn tunnels and battered old locomotives, but Cora’s escape is no uplifting journey to freedom. Each time she pops up for air she encounters a different kind of dangerous racism – distinct on the outside, but coming from the same place, and ending the same way.
There is a sense that it is all about the journey – even if Cora manages to escape, will she ever be free? If the next leg of the fantastical journey time-travelled to 2016, what cloak would the racism wear then? Would she even be free in the modern era? The implication is no.
As Cora notes, the danger isn’t just from “the savage ones.” While some of the characters are twisted and vicious, evil is done too by those merely fearful and weak, or following the herd; by those self-righteously convinced they are working in everyone’s the best interests or paralyzed by the conflict between their desire to help and their own self-preservation. All of them are a threat, plenty of them are not a million miles away from the characters that populate our everyday lives now.
Intentionally, or otherwise, The Underground Railroad is a lesson both in history and in perceiving the present better. A call to arms to take that fresh perception and be suitably moved to action: to join the underground railroad of 2017.
It’s not an accusation and it’s not preaching; there’s no high-handedness or moralising. It’s a great tale, with great characters swept up in it. But it is also a simple reminder of the past in the context of the present – laying out the facts and asking the questions. You could happily read it, be entertained and nothing more – but that would be a shame.
Lucy Unwin blogs about books at those precious stolen moments, where this review also appears. You can find her on Twitter @Stolen_Moments and @LucyAnnUnwin
Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad (Little, Brown, 2017). 978-0708898406, 400pp., paperback.
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