Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad won both the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction, and part of me is sheepish that I can’t get behind that level of admiration. While the novel is powerful and at times poignant, I had a fundamental issue with its execution.
The novel focuses on Cora, a young slave on a Georgia cotton plantation whose mother was infamous for having been the only slave to ever escape that estate. Cora is an outcast even among her fellow slaves, until Caesar, a new arrival, approaches her with plans to escape. Initially reluctant, circumstances compel Cora to agree, but the pair’s plans go wrong almost immediately, and she ends up critically injuring a young boy who tries to assist in their recapture. They manage to locate a station on the Underground Railroad which, in this alternate universe, is an actual railroad, and escape to South Carolina. Their journey continues, with Cora running from place to place, looking for asylum in an ever-threatening world.
Whitehead describes the slaves experiencing moments of happiness that are brought up short by the reality of their lives in a way that respects them as individuals while stressing that the system sees them as less than that. “Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early-morning dream. In the middle of a song on a warm Sunday night. Then it comes, always–the overseer’s cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude.”
Cora and Caesar’s journey is exhausting. They think they have found peace in South Carolina, only to discover that life is not as idyllic as it seems, with the dehumanization taking a more subtle form than it did on the planation. In North Carolina, Cora hides Anne Frank-style in an attic for months. Themes of white man’s exceptionalism run throughout the novel; whenever a slave is recaptured they thank God for watching out for white people’s interests. At one point, slave catcher Ridgeway observes, “If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now. 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.”
Rebukes on modern America aren’t exactly subtle, but they are on point. White people are willing to give up freedom to ensure their way of life is preserved (“Patriots boasted of how often they’d been searched and given a clean bill.”). Those who capture slaves are bullies, but in this time and place they provide a service that turns them into valuable members of society (“In another country, they would have been criminals, but this was America.”). In a climatic speech, a black freeman pronounces, “America. . .is a delusion, the grandest one of all. . . .This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”
I can’t argue with Whitehead’s perspective, yet the execution of this novel left me unsatisfied. Whitehead paints an alternate reality with the existence of a physical railroad that, in my mind, simply doesn’t do anything to enhance the themes of the novel. Playing with the facts and timelines the way he does only distracted me from Cora’s story. In addition to the railroad, he introduces elements of forced sterilization and experimentation on black people that are lifted from other time periods. It would have been more interesting to me to read a novel set in the time and place those incidents occurred, rather than try to fit them into one character’s experiences. I don’t believe it’s an author’s job to educate people; and yet, I wonder whether playing with reality the way he does undermines his message.
Colson Whitehead is clearly a talented writer, and I’d be curious to read some of his non-prize winners. While I enjoyed some moments in this novel, the overall execution just didn’t hit the mark for me.