The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead - a Book Review

At first, I didn't want to read this book despite its winning the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award along with other distinguished accomplishments. Having read a few of the great books earlier that described the horrors of slavery, its aftermath, even the continuation of its thread in various forms into 20th and 21st century, I thought it would be a tale of endless brutality and human deprivation that I can pass for now.

After reading Colson Whitehead's "The Underground Railroad", my initial assessment of grimness was justified but in the end I was glad that I had read this great novel.

It's a story of a slave girl Cora, who was born and raised in a Virginia plantation. Her grandmother Ajarry was abducted from an African nation, along with many other men, women and children, with the help of fellow Africans and sold to slave traders who took them into the new land called America that she knew nothing about. Ajarry was sold and resold many times before settling into the Virginia plantation where her daughter Mabel and granddaughter Cora were born. Everyday at that plantation the sheer brutality and inhumane treatment and exploitation made the escape from it a dream for its subjugated inhabitants even in the face of sure mortal punishments and ultimate humiliation. Here is a quote: "But every slave thinks about it. In the morning and in the afternoon and in the night. Dreaming of it. Every dream a dream of escape even when it didn’t look like it. When it was a dream of new shoes."

Cora fled the plantation with another slave named Caesar and the story unfolds like an adventurous story but written with such compassion and the description of the slave holding states, and the pursuits of determined slave catchers, and the men and women, both white and free blacks, who despite the risk of death helped the fleeing slaves reach freedom.

Even the all benevolent South Carolina that Cora thought to make her home was proved to be another layer of treacherous slavery, where eugenics and other forms of subjugation were used to hold the status quo. Here is a memorable quote: "The South Carolina chains were of new manufacture—the keys and tumblers marked by regional design—but accomplished the purpose of chains. They had not traveled very far at all." and here is another quote that gives the glimpse of Ridgway and the mindsets of others who supported the injustice: "If niggers were supposed to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his. If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now. Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor—if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative."

I found the story of Martin and Ethel, two whites who had hidden Cora in their attic in North Carolina from frenzied mob, were poignant. They were brave to the end, especially Martin, who had inherited the abolitionist heart from his father. The fearlessness of underground station masters, like "Sam" and "Lumbly" are equally sad but uplifting. Here is a quote where Cora describes how she thinks about the help she was getting: "The ones who excavated a million tons of rock and dirt, toiled in the belly of the earth for the deliverance of slaves like her. Who stood with all those other souls who took runaways into their homes, fed them, carried them north on their backs, died for them. The station masters and conductors and sympathizers."

Even the all fearsome slave catcher, Ridgeway, was portrayed with equal care. Like many other horrible historical injustices that were justified by delusional beliefs in lifting up a "lesser" people into the promised "civilization", Ridgeway believed in American imperative and the justness of his duty to uphold this system. Here is snippet of Ridgeway's thinking as he lectures Cora: "People like you and your mother are the best of your race. The weak of your tribe have been weeded out, they die in the slave ships, die of our European pox, in the fields working our cotton and indigo. You need to be strong to survive the labor and to make us greater. We fatten hogs, not because it pleases us but because we need hogs to survive. But we can’t have you too clever. We can’t have you so fit you outrun us.”

Cora, a girl who was determined to flee from her ordeal into freedom, like her mother Mabel tried to do, was inquisitive, she wanted to know about the world that she walked on, as she read the old almanacs in the attic of Martin and Ethel while contemplating the very meaning of life and why human beings inflict senseless injuries to others.

The Underground Railroad has the fast rhythm of a satisfying thriller, as the hopelessness being caught in a brutal system but also for its hopes arising from people, black and white, who took extraordinary steps to help the persecuted ones.

Through its various character developments including Cora and others like the abolitionist farmer Valentine and the poet Lander, the writer Colson Whitehead delineates a parallel of this bygone era of slavery with the contemporary 21st century where crafty tricks like fear is employed to keep large segments of people to remain utterly fearful of other human beings based on artificial "otherness" and solidified myth, while shielding the very naked reasons of profits made from free labour.

Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad is a must read.