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Review: Whitehead's 'Underground Railroad' an unforgettable journey through slavery

"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead; Doubleday (306 pages, $26.95) (Doubleday)  1188624
"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead; Doubleday (306 pages, $26.95) (Doubleday) 1188624
Published Aug. 25, 2016

In July, after first lady Michelle Obama mentioned in her speech at the Democratic National Convention that the White House had been built by slaves, Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly huffed that those slaves "were well-fed and had decent lodgings." As if the only problem with slavery was the lunch menu.

I so wish that O'Reilly would read Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad.

This brilliant, elegant novel is a ruthless and moving look at America's original sin, the belief in white supremacy that let it steal a continent's worth of land from one race and enslave another. Through the story of a teenager named Cora who runs away from a Georgia plantation in 1850, Whitehead brings the reader inside the experience of knowing that your body, your choices, your life are not your own.

Originally set for mid-September, The Underground Railroad's publication date was moved up after it was announced as the first book club pick by Oprah Winfrey in over a year. (It's also one of the five books on President Barack Obama's vacation reading list.)

Whitehead, a New Yorker and Harvard graduate, has collected a number of other honors already, including a MacArthur "genius" grant and a Pulitzer finalist slot. His six previous novels ranged widely in subject and style, although all had some comic tone. His 1999 debut, The Intuitionist, had touches of fantasy; Sag Harbor in 2009 was realistic and semiautobiographical; Zone One in 2011 was a zombie apocalypse story.

The Underground Railroad blends historical fiction — Whitehead read many slave narratives and other sources in his research — with magical realism to create a striking, beautifully crafted novel that echoes a variety of works, notably Toni Morrison's Beloved, Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.

Born on the sprawling Randall plantation in Georgia, Cora grows up as a "stray," a child with no family. Most often, such children's families have died or been sold away. But Cora's mother, Mabel, escaped — the only slave from Randall to do so successfully — when her daughter was small. Left behind and raised haphazardly, Cora is embittered by her mother's desertion and fiercely independent.

Her stoicism may have come down from her grandmother, Ajarry, who was captured in West Africa as a child. "In America," she learns, "the quirk was that people were things. Best to cut your losses on an old man who won't survive a trip across the ocean. A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth. A slavegirl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money. If you were a thing — a cart or a horse or a slave — your value determined your possibilities."

When Cora is about 16, already a survivor of rape and other brutalities, another young slave named Caesar proposes that the two of them escape. They know the risks. Whitehead describes the punishment meted out to another slave who runs and is caught: three days of torture, observed by invited white guests from Atlanta and Savannah and a "newspaper man from London come to report on the American scene," before he is burned alive.

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But escape Cora and Caesar do, and they make it to one of the stops on the Underground Railroad of the title. Historically, that name was a metaphor for the network of people, black and white, who aided runaways in their long journeys to the free states. That network is part of Cora's story, too, but Whitehead also creates an actual railroad, a system of cobbled-together trains running at unpredictable intervals through deep, dark tunnels, "springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus."

When they first see it, Caesar asks the man helping them, "Who built it?"

The reply: "Who builds anything in this country?"

By train and other means, first with Caesar and later alone, Cora will travel through several Southern states, each of which Whitehead has reimagined as variations on history. The pair land first in South Carolina, which seems practically paradise compared to Georgia. The state has bought large numbers of slaves — "a technicality" — and welcomed runaways and free blacks to an experiment in "uplift." They get decent food, clothes and lodging, freedom to move about and make friends, even jobs — although their upkeep is deducted from their wages, and they end up always a little behind and living on credit. That's the least of it, though. Cora and Caesar soon realize that the town's hospitals are the site of medical research that foreshadows such horrors as the Tuskegee experiment and the mass sterilizations of black women in the first half of the 20th century.

They flee again, to horrific conditions in North Carolina, where the first thing they see is a "Freedom Trail": a road lined with trees laden with the bodies of black lynching victims, as far as the eye can see. Cora will spend grueling months there in the tiny attic of a sympathetic white man's home before her travels resume.

Tasked with finding Cora and returning her to Randall is Ridgeway, a slave catcher a bit reminiscent of the Judge in Blood Meridian. He's physically intimidating, mentally several steps ahead and morally utterly ruthless: "In the chase his blood sang and glowed."

The only slave whom Ridgeway couldn't catch was Mabel, so he targets Cora with special intensity. He is horrifyingly philosophical about his purpose: "For every slave I bring home, twenty others abandon their full-moon schemes. I'm a notion of order. The slave that disappears — it's a notion, too. Of hope. Undoing what I do so that a slave the next plantation over gets an idea that it can run, too. If we allow that, we accept the flaw in the imperative. And I refuse."

Ridgeway will capture Cora, and she will escape him, several times over in a macabre dance. She will find her way eventually to an Indiana farm that is a community of runaways creating a new life for themselves, but even then her journey isn't done.

Over and over Whitehead shows us the bitter human losses of slavery, not just individual death and abuse but the systematic destruction of the bonds of family and friendship among black people. Any time his characters begin to form any kind of network of love or support, whites — from individuals like Ridgeway to entire state governments — sweep in to destroy those fragile webs and leave them helpless once again. Cora never learns the answer to the mystery of her mother's flight, but we do, and it will fairly crack your heart.

Whitehead's style in The Underground Railroad — cool, almost detached, clinical in its detail with no wasted motion — contrasts and hence intensifies the book's harrowing story. Through it all, Cora endures, and, more than a century and a half after it is set, her story recalls that famous line from William Faulkner, another writer whose essential subject was race: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.


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