Book Review: The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (2016)

September 9th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Harrowing and heartbreaking — and brimming with humanity.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC though Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence, including slavery and rape, and offensive language.)

Cora couldn’t pay attention. The tunnel pulled at her. How many hands had it required to make this place? And the tunnels beyond, wherever and how far they led? She thought of the picking, how it raced down the furrows at harvest, the African bodies working as one, as fast as their strength permitted. The vast fields burst with hundreds of thousands of white bolls, strung like stars in the sky on the clearest of clear nights. When the slaves finished, they had stripped the fields of their color. It was a magnificent operation, from seed to bale, but not one of them could be prideful of their labor. It had been stolen from them. Bled from them. The tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables—this was a marvel to be proud of. She wondered if those who had built this thing had received their proper reward.

from her legal but not rightful master fifteen months past,
a slave girl called CORA;
of ordinary height and dark brown complexion;
has a star-shape mark on her temple from an injury;
possessed of a spirited nature and devious method.
Possibly answering to the name BESSIE.
Last seen in Indiana among the outlaws of John Valentine Farm.
She has stopped running.
Reward remains unclaimed.
December 23

Sixteen-year-old Cora was born on the Randall plantation in Georgia, just like her mother before her. Mabel’s mother, Ajarry, was the first of their line to set foot on American soil. She was kidnapped, separated from her family, and enslaved when she was just a girl. Twice she tried to commit suicide on the long voyage across the Atlantic, to no avail. She married three times and birthed five children; Mabel was the only one to survive into adulthood. Mabel had a little more luck in her escape attempt: when Cora was ten or eleven, she ran away, never to return.

The first time Caesar asked Cora to run away with him, she refused. Three weeks later, she said yes. In the interim, Cora had snapped; just for a second, throwing her body over that of a young boy named Chester to shield him from punishment. A beating with a cane, for the crime of bumping into his owner’s brother, thus spilling a drop of wine on his shirtsleeve. She’d landed on Terrance Randall’s radar; Terrance, who was now poised to assume control of his brother James’s half of the plantation. Terrance, the crueler and more sadistic of the Randall boys.

“She had not been his and now she was his. Or she had always been his and just now knew it.”

So Caesar and Cora make a break for it, with a little help from the famed Underground Railroad. Only here, Whitehead reimagines the UR as an honest-to-goodness, wood and steel train; one that travels through tunnels carved into the rock by black and brown hands. A railroad that runs up and down the East Coast, on an intermittent schedule, with stops closing and rerouting as needed.

Though they don’t know it at first, hot in pursuit is a bounty hunter named Ridgeway. The elder Randall, now deceased, hired him to catch Mabel after she escaped. His failure to do so has haunted him ever since. Ridgeway’s motivation to deliver her daughter to the loathsome Randall “whelp” is strong, even pathological, and will prove the undoing of many.

While it’s a fabulous invention, the physical railroad doesn’t dominate the story (much to my surprise). The time spent on the train is actually rather brief and sporadic, as Cora and Caesar don’t make a beeline for the north as I’d expected them to. Their route is much more circuitous, with several false endings.
Their first stop lets them off in South Carolina, where “Bessie Carpenter” and “Christian Markson” quickly warm to the state’s “colored progress” programs – even if they’re technically still property of South Carolina. But when bounty hunters come sniffing around, Cora hops train to North Carolina – where she spends the next several months hiding in the conductor’s attic, on account of the leg is closed. Or was supposed to be. Finally she finds (and loses) paradise on the Valentine Farm in Indiana.

The story isn’t about the journey – or rather the titular transportation that gets you there – but the many destinations that Cora and Caesar call home, however briefly. The thing that most surprised me were the vast differences in how the individual states approached slavery – and, by extension, treated black people. Whereas South Carolina tried to improve their lot by providing education, health care, housing, and paid labor, through its “race laws,” North Carolina banned blacks from its soil altogether, preferring to replace slaves with low-wage white immigrants (for fear of an uprising and mass slaughter).

Of course, I have trouble telling how much of this is rooted in history; for example, a Google search didn’t turn up any results for a “Freedom Trail” in North Carolina (the sides of which are decorated with lynched black bodies). If I have just one complaint about The Underground Railroad, it’s a lack of explanation of historical events in the author’s note. While Whitehead does note that the runaway slave ads came from the digital collections of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (but not Cora’s, right?), there’s no mention of the laws, programs, events, and people referenced throughout the book. Even a bibliography or reading list would be nice.

Some references did jump out at me, though – most notably South Carolina’s syphilis experiments and the mandatory sterilization of women. All under the guise of “helping,” natch. While South Carolina does initially feel like a veritable utopia to Cora and Caesar – so different is it from the Georgia cotton farms – they eventually learn that not everything is as it seems. Even these “benevolent” whites embrace casual racism, infantalizing black people and violating their bodies in the service of a supposed greater good.

This comes into stark relief with Ethel, and her delusional daydreams of missioning in Africa, saving the heathens from themselves, and ascending to a sort of celebrity or even demigod status for her “good works.” She isn’t helping Cora for Cora’s sake, but for her own.

Whitehead does an excellent job with characterization; for the most part, I felt like I knew even the more minor characters intimately. Cora is complex and nuanced; she alternates between emotional unavailability and the occasional, unexpected (even to her) bouts of compassion. Whether defending a tiny plot of land or her very freedom, she’s terribly fierce and brave. Her anger at Mabel for leaving her behind is understandable – even darkly amusing, such as when we’re treated to one-liners of her inner monologue – but also painful to bear witness to.

There’s actually a fair amount of dark humor here – not a whole lot, but peppered throughout – that’s best exemplified, I think, in Caesar’s background. Born on a small farm in Virgina, Caesar and his parents belonged to “a petite old widow”:

Mrs. Garner desired nothing more than to spend her final years in comfort. She didn’t agree with the popular arguments for slavery but saw it as a necessary evil given the obvious intellectual deficiencies of the African tribe. To free them from bondage all at once would be disastrous—how would they manage their affairs without a careful and patient eye to guide them? Mrs. Garner helped in her own way, teaching her slaves their letters so they could receive the word of God with their own eyes. She was liberal with passes, allowing Caesar and his family to range across the county as they pleased. It rankled her neighbors. In her degrees, she prepared them for the liberation that awaited them, for she had pledged to set them free upon her death.

After she passed, Caesar and his parents were shocked to find that she neglected to draft a will; consequently, her niece, the heir to her estate, auctioned them off with the rest of the property. Caesar was separated from his family and sent to do hard labor in Georgia.

Can’t manage their affairs, you say? That’s sure rich, coming from someone who didn’t have a will. But I digress.

The narrative structure is wonderful, too. Each chapter alternates between a place – Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, the North – and a person – Ajarry, Ridgeway, Stevens, Ethel, Caesar, Mabel. Long, short, long, short; a chance to catch our breathe and get our bearings. By focusing specifically on certain travelers, Whitehead offers us a glimpse into their backgrounds, motivations, and characters. That, and we get to learn the fates of people who have popped up, only to disappear along the way. People who we thought were gone for good. For better or worse.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Fifteen-year-old Cora is a slave who escapes the Randall plantation and travels north to freedom via the Underground Railroad – reimagined here as an honest-to-goodness, wood and steel train that travels through secret tunnels that run up and down the East Coast. Most of the characters are people of color: slaves, freemen, and runaways of African descent. There are also a fair number of white characters: slave owners, overseers, railroad conductors, and assorted rebels. Ridgeway the bounty hunter employs a Native American man (for a time, anyway). John Valentine is biracial, but is able to pass as white. He buys his wife Gloria off a business partner and then emancipates her.

Four fellow slaves raped Cora shortly after she hit puberty; years later, she continues to suffer from PTSD. Her master, Terrance Randall, also sexually assaulted Cora. She has trouble getting close to men because of the assaults.

Ajarry’s (Cora’s grandmother) first husband was abusive. Ajarry’s rape (on the voyage across the Atlantic; probably the first of many) is also described.

It’s strongly implied that Ethel Wells is gay; as a kid, she maybe (?) had a crush on her family’s slave, Jasmine.

Animal-friendly elements: n/a


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