by Fran Withrow
It has been a long time since a novel haunted me as much as “The Underground Railroad.”
Something about the way Colson Whitehead presents the life of a plantation slave hit a huge nerve for me. This gripping fictional work had me thinking about life-long post traumatic stress disorder. It made me blink back tears. I felt angry and ashamed and horrified. I read late into the night, and then slept fitfully and woke often, holding the story in my heart.
I am undone by this powerful book.
“The Underground Railroad’s” main character is Cora, a tough and courageous woman if there ever was one. Her grandmother was kidnapped from Africa and brought to the Randall plantation, where she spent the rest of her life. Cora’s mother escaped the Randalls when Cora was a baby and never returned. Many years later, Cora, now grown, and fellow slave Caesar take the plunge and run away by heading north on the underground railroad.
Whitehead’s novel is unique in that he presents this famous railroad as an actual one, and his description is so spot on you will find yourself believing it was so. Stations are well hidden, sometimes closed, often shabby. The unpredictability of these trains intensifies the danger for Cora as well as for everyone she comes into contact with, both black and white.
Not everyone survives.
Every character is richly drawn, even the evil ones. Slave catcher Ridgeway, who spends much of the book chasing Cora, is one of the most despicable characters I have ever come across. He is not content to simply catch runaways and return them to their “owners,” but also heaps mental abuse and humiliation on his captives. The fact that anyone in his clutches survives, let alone attempts to escape from him, is almost beyond my comprehension.
Whitehead’s book does not sugarcoat anything. He deftly describes the daily grind, the hopelessness, the constant, relentless undercurrent of fear that was the lot of each slave. Ridgeway explains why plantation owners and slave catchers work so hard to retrieve people like Cora. He says, “People like you and your mother are the best of your race….You need to be strong to survive the labor and to make us greater….But we can’t have you too clever. We can’t have you so fit you outrun us.”
Yet Cora is clever, as well as strong and courageous and determined. I was weeping and cheering by the end of the book. I found myself wanting to apologize to Cora and her mother, and to all African Americans whose forefathers and foremothers bore such a horrendous burden for so long, and whose descendants still struggle with the aftermath of this heartbreaking time in our nation’s history.
Whitehead’s book has come at a very unsettled time in our country, which is all the more reason to pick up a copy and read it. A well-written, sobering, fascinating tale, “The Underground Railroad” will be with you long, long after you have turned the last page.
“The Underground Railroad”
by Colson Whitehead