The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead: a long walk to freedom?

One has to brace oneself before reading The Underground Railroad. Like all books on slavery, this novel painfully recreates the worst acts of violence committed by slavers, slave-owners and slave catchers. After each book on slavery, you think that you’ve read the worse of what the worst humans are capable of, but then another book pops up and you read it and you realize that the worse of what the worst humans are capable of is a bottomless pit.

Cora is about fifteen years old and lives on the cotton plantation she and her mother Mabel were born on. A few years ago, Mabel successfully escaped and Cora has lived among the outcasts ever since. When Caesar, a new slave on the plantation, asks her to accompany him on the underground railroad, Cora, having nothing to lose, accepts to follow him in his escape. The Underground Railroad tells the story of this race against slave-catchers, one of them being determined to catch the daughter of Mabel, his only failure, as well as Cora’s illusions and disillusions on what freedom is and is not.

Very much plot-driven, the story of Cora makes for a breathless read. Colson Whitehead crafted his novel around an original structure: the narration is interspersed by chapters that bring specific flashback information about characters, shedding a different light on some aspects of the story or on the characters themselves. This structure always leaves you wanting more, and you end up devouring the book in a few sittings despite the horrors that are depicted every few pages, so as to know whether Cora and Caesar finally escape their miserable condition and make it to a peaceful freedom. But what we learn along the pages is that freedom is not just being out of bondage. As the young pair run from State to State, they are never safe; their security always depends on the local racial laws that shape their freedom. Racial laws that are rarely friendly to Black people.

Sadly, I found the characters under developed. Not that they lacked depth, but most of them weren’t complex enough. The slave-catcher Ridgeway, a white supremacist ahead of his time, is the most obvious example: horribly cruel, thoroughly racist, unable to feel empathy, he is very much the Disney villain. Whereas one comforts oneself with the fact that Disney villains do not exist, we know all too well that many Ridgeways existed (and still do). But still, I like my characters a little more nuanced. Esther, the wife of one of the station agents, was exactly that for me: if her fear of being discovered hiding a runaway slave makes her, at first, very rude and hostile to Cora, she is eventually shown under another light that makes it clear that she is pretty much a woman of her time, not consciously racist (her religious faith perversely convinces her that she is not) but still influenced by the foul atmosphere of the time, and her egotist fantasy of being someone’s savior.

Cora, of course, is the main focus of the novel but in spite of this fact, I found it difficult to relate to her. She remains aloof and secret throughout the novel, not letting anyone into her world. This mistrust is certainly due to the fact that she was abandoned by her mother at a young age, and raped by several men while she was still very young (on top of all the other horrors she went through as a slave). Trust, understandably, is not something that Cora can give easily, particularly to men. But still, I found it difficult to genuinely care for her. I was interested in her and wanted to know, of course, whether she was going to escape and find peace, but I couldn’t feel tenderness for her, I couldn’t honestly say that ‘I liked’ her. The compassion I felt came more from the hardships that she suffers (every human in his/her right mind would feel compassion for this), but not from her character. And as I’m writing this, I can’t help thinking: who are you to demand that such a character requires your tenderness? Who are you to expect this character to lay bare the secrets of her soul so that you can nurse her and feel good about it?

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

However, I guess my biggest disappointment wasn’t in the characters. It sprung from the underground railroad itself. Reading Whitehead’s novel as a historical fiction, I became very confused when Caesar and Cora actually got on a real subterranean train. I was reading the book along with other bookstagrammers with whom I had a discussion every week, and on our first appointment, I confessed that I didn’t know that the Underground Railroad was a real train, and that my ignorance had made me feel ashamed. After some confusion, we all checked online only to re-discover what we already knew, that the Underground Railroad wasn’t an actual subterranean train, but that Colson Whitehead, who had believed it when he was a little boy, decided to recreate the train of his boyhood imagination. While I can only respect this choice of creative license, I was upset because, first, I found it highly unbelievable. Not that I’m an engineer but I’m not sure how such long tunnels could have been real at the time of the novel. One of the station agents does allude to the greatest difficulty of the construction, air ducts, but this allusion wasn’t enough to satisfy me. Plus, the repetitive allusion to the fact that former slaves had built the underground network made it, in my opinion, morally ambiguous. What is more, this narrative choice impacted the rest of the narration by systematically casting doubts on some practices that seemed even more improbable than an actual underground railroad (and this says a lot). I found myself checking the existence of such and such events (forced sterilizations for example, or the museum episodes), which marred a little bit the trust I had in the narrative voice.

I perfectly understand that Whitehead made a conscious, creative and artistic decision but I couldn’t help being disappointed by the fact that my whole experience was marked by doubt. On the sterilization question, it seemed, from my rapid research, that forced sterilization did happen in the U.S. but later than the novel suggests: it was a project that appeared in the late XIX° century. If you have other information about it, please comment below, I’d love to know more! As for Cora being a living exhibit in a museum, I couldn’t find anything about it: does anyone know if such practices happened?

The Underground Railroad stands out as an attempt to rewrite history through fiction, to tell a part of history from the point of view of the victims, not the victors. This point of view produces in the reader a growing feeling of horror as we observe, as powerless as Cora when she’s hidden in an attic, the unbearable reification of Black people: from the plantations where slaves are mere cattle, to the performances in which white actors, their faces and hands painted black, impersonate dumb creatures who should be grateful that their master is good enough to feed them, to the distressing presence of Homer, this black child working for the slave-catcher, whose reasons to bully other black people are never made clear. All these elements make for a profoundly disturbing read, as they force us to observe our own heart and wonder where we would have stood, in such a war. I finished the book a few weeks ago and it feels as though it was still staring at me, like Cora, in the museum in which she’s a living exhibition, coldly and fixedly returning the gaze of the visitors, silently unsettling them by the power of her own gaze.
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2 thoughts on “The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead: a long walk to freedom?

  1. This is such a well-written and thoughtful review, Julia. This book didn’t blow me away either – although it’s very powerful and a harrowing tale, as you say. And I definitely felt the same as you, that the characters just feel a little two dimensional. I did quite like the underground railroad metaphor/not-a-metaphor/but-still-kind-of-a-metaphor element though. I wonder if the difference in our experiences is because I was already aware of the fact that Whitehead turned the concept into a reality in the book, and so it wasn’t a surprise for me when I got to it. Maybe I was more prepared to suspend my disbelief? I wonder if you’d have felt differently if you went in knowing that the book wasn’t going to be entirely historically accurate?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely think it would have been different! I expected a historical novel with not much creative license so I was destabilized and displeased at this intrusion of fantasy. I’m pretty sure that knowing it beforehand would have helped. Now, on IG, I really liked what Surabhi said (@ vapourofthoughts), that she saw it as a metaphor of buried struggles, this changes my perspective on the book and I’m willing to accept a little bit more this subterranean train! Haha! Thank you for leaving a comment, Sophie!

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