I don’t know if I will recover from The Underground Railroad anytime soon; its brutal subject matter compounded by current events.
I listened to the audiobook because it became available at my local library before the hard copy. There was as lot of beautiful language and descriptors which came alive with the narration but it was also hard to literally listen to all the racial slurs and recounts of abuse.
“On one end there was who you were before you went underground, and on the other end a new person steps out into the light.”
Cora is a slave on the Randall Plantation in Georgia whose mother, Mabel, escaped when Cora was ten years old. Mabel became a mythical figure for the slaves of Randall although her daughter holds deep resentments for being left a stray. Almost ten years later, after a brutal encounter with her master, Cora is approached by Caesar for a chance to run. He has a connection to the Underground Railroad and he sees Cora as good luck; the two embark on a journey that tests the human spirit.
“The whip was the standard punishment for disobedience. Running away was a transgression so large that the punishment enveloped every generous soul on her brief tour of freedom.”
In Whitehead’s universe the Underground Railroad is literal, a series of train tracks deep below the Southern landscape, that takes some getting used to but is an interesting take on history. Cora and Caesar make it to South Carolina but it is not the promise land they yearned for and their refuge is short lived.
To make matters more complicated there is a slave catcher by the name of Ridgeway who failed to return Mabel to Randall and hopes to redeem himself with Cora’s capture. He is a frightening figure made more terrifying by his basis in reality.
The language is rough; the “N” word, “darky” and other derogatory phrases are used liberally but keep the reader in the time period. The fantastical elements of the railroad aside the story is rooted in a troubling reality that Whitehead brings to life in a compelling story. Despite being set so far in the past Whitehead delivers relavent social commentary for today’s audience.
My biggest complaint, without giving too much away, would be the third stop on the Railroad and subsequent ending.