The harrowing blast of the opening sections on the Randall’s Georgia plantation rams home what it meant to be a slave in C19 America: a chattel to be bought, sold or abused on a whim, worked to death, favoured for a while before being discarded, publicly tortured and murdered as an example to others in the event of a failed escape attempt. The pecking order amongst the slaves is also revealed, with battles over the strips of land between huts, vital to grow extra food or keep a goat, the arrogance or bullying on the part of those emboldened by being in the boss’s favour, the general contempt for those too sick, crazed or weak to work.
The heroine Cora only survives abandonment as a child by her mother Martha because her reckless courage is taken by the other slaves as a form of insanity, meaning that she is best left alone. When conditions on the cotton plantation deteriorate even further, Cora is at last motivated to Martha, and escape with fellow-slave Caesar, who has made a vital contact enabling them to disappear on the “underground railway”.
The author’s decision to make this a real train on rails, rather than the network of support which it was in reality, has been described as a stroke of inventive genius. This device could serve to show the dramatic effect on Cora of being propelled rapidly into what is for her an unfamiliar and strikingly different world, although Colson Whitehead does not choose to make much of this aspect. It is a relief to have a break from the intense violence of the plantation. Yet the story of the real underground network is so interesting that it could have stood in its own right without the need for gimmicks or magic realism. I was irritated to be asked to suspend my disbelief: in the state of Georgia where so many were dedicated to capturing runaway slaves, how on earth could a real railway line have remained undetected over the years? Once located, the whole system would have been rendered redundant at a stroke. It would have been more challenging for the writer, also more engaging and fulfilling for the reader to witness Cora working her way across the States with the help of enlightened individuals, gradually learning about the world outside the plantation. Perhaps the worst effect of the invented railway line is that one can no longer judge what else may be purely a flight of Colson Whitehead’s imagination. I do not recall him providing a single date in the main text. The acknowledgements at the end are very scanty. I accept that creative writing can be applied to anything, but an important topic like the gradual process of abolition of slavery calls for a bit more grounding, if only in a solid appendix.
I was interested to see the differences between states without knowing how far they were based on truth: South Carolina seemed liberal, until it became clear that black women were being pressurised to accept sterilisation as a means of keeping the freed former slave population under control. North Carolina was more overtly brutal, with its chilling Friday sessions to hold public lynchings to provide exhibits for the sinister “Freedom Trail”. Even the apparent haven of a utopian community for ex-slaves in Indiana arouses the fear of white neighbours and resentment from those who have bought their freedom and feel threatened by others who have simply run away.
The narrative loses momentum after Cora’s first escape by rail, seeming to drift into the back stories of characters like Ridgeway, the driven slave-chaser who, having failed to track down Martha makes it his business to capture Cora. There is an odd digression into body-snatching which seems to have no connection with the rest of the novel. Characters are generally two-dimensional, the storyline sometimes disjointed and dialogues artificial, used as a means of informing the reader rather than communicating in convincing “voices”.
Perhaps this brutal tale will make most impact on readers who come to it with little or no prior knowledge of the appalling injustice of slavery. The novel appears to have been somewhat over-hyped, but at least it inspired me to research further online about, for instance, Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who risked her life leading others to freedom.