The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead

While Colson Whitehead’s novel is a fictional account of slavery that bends historical details, the cruelties and heartbreak are undeniably accurate. Cora is the center of the story, a woman who is an outcast in her plantation life, her mother having left her behind to escape North. Her own chance to take off comes in the form of Caesar, who sees her as a good luck charm because of her mother’s successful escape, and together they flee, managing to make it a station of the Underground Railroad.

Whitehead imagines the railroad as tracks literally tunneling through the earth, complete with subterranean locomotives and boxcars. Each train journey serves to jump the narrative in some way — further in time but also into completely different circumstances. This structure gives a kind of patchwork quality to the book, and I wasn’t sure I understood whether that served a particular purpose narratively or just provided a way to play with the progression of the story. I felt like the transitions were jarring at times, but then I suppose that is an accurate representation of the hyper speed of travel.

Each of Cora’s movements toward, and what often feels like back away from, freedom is wrenching. It may be an overarching comment about how progress can stall, regress, then launch forward again, a representation of the concept of the Nadir, something that last came up in my reading of The Warmth of Other Suns. The most interesting part of the Underground Railroad here is that a train’s impending path through the tunnels is unknown, the passengers choose to board without knowing where the journey will take them. They are traveling deprived of forward vision, only looking behind them in fear, hoping their destinations will be improvements.

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