The Underground Railroad is the story of Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation, who escapes using the Underground Railroad. But this is not the Railroad of safe houses and hiding places which really existed: this is an actual, physical railroad, going through the Southern states and up to the North. The novel follows Cora through her escape, as she flees a terrifying slave catcher and travels through several states.
I’ve seen a lot of criticism of the characterisation of this novel, and while it is true that Cora is distant, that we never really feel like we’re getting to know her, this is the way she is with other characters in the novel. It’s not that she’s underdeveloped, it’s that we’re deliberately kept at arm’s length. It is probably true that we never really get inside any of the character’s heads, which I assume is intended to make the experiences more general. The problem is that I wasn’t all that invested in Cora as an individual. Obviously I was rooting for her, but more because you automatically root for a slave to be free than because I felt any particular attachment to her as an individual.
I can’t say I enjoyed this book: it’s violent and harrowing and everything else that you would expect from a slave narrative, but it is bloody beautifully written, and very impactful. The Guardian review of it talks about it wearing its research lightly, which is a description which definitely rings true. Although there is clearly a huge weight of information and history underlying the plot, it doesn’t overwhelm the events of the story. I personally think that writing this way requires an incredible amount of skill.
The central conceit of the novel, the reimagining of the Railroad, is an interesting one. When I finished it, I still couldn’t put my finger on exactly why Whitehead had made the choice to do that, unless it was simply a gimmick. Honestly, I didn’t really see that the Railroad being real made any difference to the narrative, and I still feel that way. However, upon reflection I think that the intention behind it is to render the incredible effort and sacrifice that went into the railroad in the most impactful way possible. There’s a passage where Cora looks out at the walls of the tunnel passing by and thinks of the black hands which built it, and I think that passage is the key to understanding the whole novel. It’s a literal depiction of the courage and risk required for a slave to escape. Realising this made the whole novel much more impactful for me.
It’s a powerful and important book, but no less of a page turner because of the weight it carries.