The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Doubleday. 306 pp. $26.95
This is one of the most wrenching and difficult books I’ve ever read. It’s a work of art, and its sheer artistry gives pleasure. At the same time, I didn’t look forward to reading it every night.
People will say the subject is slavery, or racism, but for me the subject is man’s inhumanity to man. I don’t understand how one human being can treat another the way people treat each other in this book. The dreadful treatment goes on and on. It’s unrelenting.
One reason had to be sheer terror. We used to think of the Southern plantation as a vast place that was ruled by stern but kindly overseers—see Gone with the Wind—but I think the truth was a lot shoddier and more haphazard, more like 12 Years a Slave. The fact was that there were far more slaves in the Southern states than there were white people, and if they’d ever been able to rise up in a unified way they would have overwhelmed their overseers. The only way to keep them from doing that was to be brutal and keep them in ignorance.
The other factor must have been guilt. Whatever the “rational” arguments for slavery (I heard various drunken versions of these when I was a freshman at Duke in 1966. My Southern friends were trying to set me straight) people knew in their hearts that it was evil beyond almost anything else they could have done. And yet they felt stuck with it. It was a part of their heritage. When you’re stuck with something like that, and you have to defend it, you feel rage against the person who causes it.
Colson Whitehead utterly ignores the facts of slavery, and of life in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. He instead creates a narrative that is true to the emotions of the time and the absurdity of the whole situation. He creates a world where the Underground Railroad is not metaphorical: in his story there was an actual railroad, built by black people, to get them away from slavery. But the further they get away the more intricate the system seems, and the more hopelessly they seem entangled. Even if you get to Indiana, to Massachusetts, you’re not really free. Even if you’re a freedman. Even if you’re born free.
Whitehead’s protagonist is a young woman named Cora, and the good friend who bought this book for me, and who read it ahead of me, complained that she is not a well-rounded character. That’s true. One reason is that this is a satire: Cora is a kind of Everyslave, who could no more be well-rounded than Gulliver or Candide. But I might argue that there’s another, simpler, reason. The system she’s living in doesn’t allow her to become human. She’s alternately a slave, a crazy person, a runaway, a murderer, an uppity woman. She can’t stay still long enough to be fully human.
Cora begins on a cotton plantation in Georgia, a place inherited by two brothers and therefore split in half. One brother is slightly more benign than the other, though they’re both slaveholders, and both drunken wastrels. Cora’s progenitors had a tradition of keeping a small patch of land for themselves, to grow their own vegetables, and when Cora defends her right to do that—destroying a shack that another slave builds on her patch—she’s regarded as crazy, and bunks with the crazy women. But she’s crazy like a fox, an independent compassionate person who’s just trying to live her life. She gets in real trouble—trouble with the overseers—when she tries to shield a younger slave who has fallen afoul of the mean brother, and takes a beating meant for him. Compassion, and caring for one another, seem verboten in this situation, at least as far as the owners are concerned. It is in their interest to keep everybody scared and fighting for themselves. Cora was a marked woman from that time on.
She was also marked because she is the daughter of a woman named Mabel who escaped. That woman is legendary, because almost never does anyone flee the plantation that they’re not found and brought back (and, at this plantation at least, killed in a dreadful way). Cora hardly knew her mother, and hates the woman for abandoning her. We hear of Mabel’s actual fate only toward the end of the book. Cora herself never discovers it.
Whitehead is that kind of novelist. He focuses on one point of view then suddenly, out of the blue, switches to another. He follows one plotline and zigzags to another story altogether. I have the impression that he had no idea what would happen when he began this tale. He may not have even known the Underground Railroad would be a physical entity. After a long dreadful stay on this Georgia plantation, Cora lights out with two other slaves—one of whom came along just because she heard Cora and her male friend leaving—to take the perilous journey to freedom.
This is a novel where—this is how we know it’s a satire—South Carolina has a benevolent attitude toward African Americans (though they’re conducting nefarious medical experiments on them), where North Carolina takes an almost Orwellian, Nazi Germany solution to the problem, where the good news is that there is an Underground Railroad and it’s run by benevolent people but you never know where the next stop is or who is going to meet you there. Other than Cora, the most interesting character in the book is a white slavecatcher named Ridgeway, who actually seems to have nothing against black people, treats them decently when he has the chance, but believes absolutely in the laws of the land and the necessity to return slaves to their owners, and is brutal about that. The whole thing seems absurd. But it’s no more absurd than everything else Cora runs into.
What Whitehead actually seems to be writing is not a story about slavery and the Underground Railroad, but a parable for the black experience in America. Just when you think you’re free, you find you’re enslaved again. There’s always a catch, a subtler form of entanglement. Until the nation finds a way to unravel this tangle, no one will be free.
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