It goes without saying that any story about a slave fleeing a plantation in 19th century American is going to be harrowing, but it doesn’t surprise me in the least to learn that Colson Whitehead is familiar with the horror genre: the relentless feeling of dread and terror he evokes in The Underground Railroad is palpable. But this isn’t the only thing that makes this novel truly brilliant.
The story follows Cora as she embarks on a journey North in search of freedom, tracked state by state by a ruthless slave catcher with a personal vendetta against her.
If you’ve ever wondered how a post-modernist would approach the topic of slavery, The Underground Railroad is your answer. In Whitehead’s imagining, it’s literally an underground railroad, and there are unique horrors that await Cora at each stop. While it’s no secret that Whitehead has cleverly departed from historical accuracy, the lines are blurred just enough for discomfort: each state that Cora enters is a sort of alternate history designed to represent America’s actual racial history.
It’s the cat-and-mouse narrative that propels the story forward — and Whitehead is a masterful storyteller proficient in the fine art of foreshadowing. He has this way of recounting events and dispelling information in a non-linear fashion that brilliantly and dreadfully sets the scene for what’s to come.
At the heart of The Underground Railroad is a damning yet warranted thesis about America: “This nation shouldn’t exist, if there’s any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”
When Whitehead describes the dehumanization of black people in the 1800s, and how the slave owners and slave catchers rationalized their actions, it’s difficult not to draw parallels to present day America. In a world where white people are still desperate to own (and revise) the historical narrative — think Bill O’Reilly’s recent comments about the slaves who built the White House being well-fed — here, it’s Whitehead who is in control. The irony — and power — in his choice to present his own version of American history is certainly not lost.