Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Underground Railroad, was another Mocha Girls Read book club selection. The novel follows Cora on her Odyssey-like journey to escape slavery traveling a magical realistic underground railroad.
“Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor – if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.” – page 80
It begins in Africa following the first slaves as they were stolen and brought over to America. From the jump, Whitehead does not mince words to describe the brutal reality of the sea voyage, rife with illness, suicide and violence. The brief introductory chapters were purposefully graphic to prime the reader for a dark look into American history. The author draws a fictional line between these first slaves to Mabel and her daughter Cora working on a cotton plantation in Georgia. When Cora is very little, her mother escapes in the night with no word. A legend grows around her to be the only slave from the plantation escape the slave catchers and dogs. Instead of inspiring Cora, it hardens her as she must make her way on her own from a young age. She is grouped with the mad women who never reproduced usually for mental or physical issues. There is a shaky camaraderie, but nothing is certain for the life of a slave.
She is resigned to her life until the evil brother, Terence, takes over the entire Randall plantation. He is basically a sociopath that enjoys torturing any slave that steps out of line. When Cora protects a small boy, he revels in making an example out of her with the whip. Another slave named Big Anthony is tortured and killed for show. That’s the turning point when she agrees to leave with Caesar who knows where to find the railroad. Unfortunately, during their escape they injure a teenager part of the slave catching posse. Now wanted for murder, they run for their lives to South Carolina.
Plot spoilers lie ahead!
The rest of the book follows her as she appears to have every imaginable significant Black history event happen to Cora.
In South Carolina, she works as a nanny as part of their Negro education program. One day she is transferred to be on display at a museum. When she discovers the community doctor, Stevens, is secretly sterilizing women, she runs away on the railroad to North Carolina. We find out in a separate chapter, he used to be a grave robber to study bodies and make cash.
“Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood. With surgeries that Dr. Stevens described, Cora thought, the whites had begun stealing futures in earnest. Cut you open and rip them out, dripping. Because that’s what you do when you take away someone’s babies – steal their future. Torture them as much as you can when they are on this earth, then take away the hope that one day their people will have it better.” – page 117
The mythical railroad whisks Cora to the attic of Martin & Ethel who inherited the stop from Martin’s father. Not very faithful to the abolitionist cause more out of fear, they hide Cora. From the attic she witnesses the weekly Friday night lynchings.
“In North Carolina, the negro race did not exist except at the ends of ropes.” – page 156
Bad luck befalls her again when the couple’s Irish maid snitches for the paltry reward despite her societal position not much above Cora’s. Before the town could hang Cora, Ridgeway a determined slave catcher claims her with glee.
“ “We do our part, “ Ridgeway said, “slave and slave catcher. Master and colored boss. The new arrivals streaming into the harbors and the politicians and sheriffs and newspapermen and the mothers raising strong sons. People like you and your mother are the best of your race. The weak of the tribe have been weeded out, they die in the slave ships, die of our European pox, in the fields working our cotton and indigo. You need to be strong to survive the labor and to make us greater. We fatten our hogs, not because it pleases us but because we need hogs to survive. But we can’t have you too clever. We can’t have you so fit you outrun us.” “ – page 222
They make their way through plague stricken Oklahoma/Tennessee with the help of Royal and other free slaves catching the slave catcher off-guard. The Nat Turner of the story. Together, they make their way to Indiana to the black owned Valentine farm. The two opposing views of abolition are channeled into the characters, Lander and Mingo debating the fate of the farm. Should they turn away slaves to keep easy truce with the whites or defy them and take in any black person seeking shelter. It turns violent before the answer comes by Ridgeway and his young black assistant, Homer. She was happy for a time with Royal before violence descends again. She does eventually make her way to the North. The book ending open at a crossroads, reader unsure on where freedom will take Cora.
“Lumbly’s words returned to her: If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America. It was a joke, then, from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.” – page 262-263
I loved Colson Whitehead’s biting condemnation of America as noted with the above excerpts. My favorite parts were these musings intermixed with historical nuggets he uncovered in his research. However, I felt hammered down by the actual narrative. It took me way too long to finish this book. There’s not much light at the end of the railroad, which I know is realistic. However, all these events happening to the same person seemed less so. I was so ready to love it, but I guess the hype raised the bar too high. At times, the author’s descriptions are needlessly long winded. Characters disappear with not much explanation or fanfare. The book has a meandering, non-linear chapter approach to the story. He does return to key characters to give them epilogues before the final chapter of Cora’s story. If you’re curious about this period of American history, I do think this is an excellent book to read. It’s more of a class assignment than a literary pleasure read for me. I’m curious to read more from the author, but I can’t say I loved this award winning book.
More of my sporadic reviews and musings can be found on my blog.