The Underground Railroad
“Cora didn't know what optimistic meant. She asked the other girls that night if they were familiar with the word. None of them had heard it before. She decided that it meant trying.” ― Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad
This was the second novel by Colson Whitehead that I have read and it impressed me even more than the first (The Intuitionist). It is a blend of historical fiction and fantasy that I had not previously experienced. Needless to say, the combination was successful especially with the addition of a suspenseful story and an appealing protagonist.
The protagonist, Cora , is a young slave girl who is considering fleeing slavery from the opening sentence on the first page. "The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no." That she changes her mind goes without saying, but as the narrative continues her trek through the South on and off the "underground railroad" maintains the reader's interest. Along the way there are colorful characters, like Caesar and her grandmother and her nemesis, Ridgeway.
The first of these characters that we meet is Ajarry, Cora's grandmother. We learn how Ajarry took ownership of, and maintained control over, a small plot of land in the slave area of the Randall plantation in the Southern state of Georgia where she lived most of her life. Both Cora’s mother Mabel and Cora herself inherited that land, and took pride in maintaining it. Ajarry insists that attempts to escape were hopeless and, even after Mabel made a successful escape anyway, Cora refused the invitation from fellow slave Caesar to make her own attempt.
It is only after a series of painful incidents on the plantation that Cora changes her mind. She joins Caesar in an escape attempt that leads to unexpected developments; however, Cora and Caesar make it to the first stop on the underground railroad. In the first of several fantastic episodes the railroad is portrayed as a sub-surface train network that takes them into the first stop on their escape route: a town in South Carolina. There, Cora and Caesar are given new names and identities, and start new lives in which they become increasingly comfortable, refusing a series of opportunities to take the underground railroad even further towards the North, and freedom. However this life does not continue when it is shattered by the appearance of Ridgeway, leader of an angry group of patrollers and slave catchers. He tracks them down but Cora manages to escape, taking the underground railroad to North Carolina, where she is given refuge with Martin and Ethel Wells.
This episode finds Cora held as a prisoner in their home. Eventually, she is discovered and turned over to Ridgeway, while the Wells are left to face the anger and violence of the community’s racist citizens. Her next stop is Tennessee, as Ridgeway journeys to capture yet another slave before taking Cora back to the Randall plantation where it appears that an even worse fate awaits her. As the novel continues this reader was held in suspense wondering whether Cora would escape yet again and, if so, would she ultimately reach freedom, if not complete safety, in a Northern state.
I especially enjoyed the fantastic moments and the irony exemplified in the following: "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."(p 80)
The slave owners followed this philosophy but they did not expect that Cora, the individual human being, would also follow the philosophy in her search for ownership of her person and her freedom.
The story highlights the indefatigable nature of Cora who always finds a way to survive. Throughout the narrative chapters are inserted as brief vignettes that explore the lives, backgrounds, and fates of several characters in the same way as the book’s first explored Ajarry’s life. The combination of historical detail, fantastic speculation, and suspense makes for an engaging read worthy of the awards it has received.