THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, by Colson Whitehead. Doubleday, 306 pp., $26.95.
In the past few decades, adventurous and resourceful African-American writers have sought and achieved greater imaginative license over their shared history, especially the centuries of bondage.
The range of their accomplishments takes in science fiction writer Octavia Butler’s groundbreaking time-travel saga, “Kindred,” and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s intricately woven ghost story, “Beloved.” In between, there have been ingenious, rollicking satires of antebellum life such as Ishmael Reed’s “Flight to Canada,” Charles Johnson’s “Oxherding Tale” and James McBride’s “The Good Lord Bird” — along with more unsettling ruminations on the so-called “peculiar institution” of slavery, such as Edward P. Jones’ “The Known World” and John Edgar Wideman’s “The Cattle Killing.”
Colson Whitehead’s new novel, “The Underground Railroad,” has raised the bar — and the stakes — for such fiction by yoking all the attributes of those aforementioned novels (as well as the classic slave narratives of 19th century) into a boldly imaginative allegory rooted in brutal historical truths. Whitehead’s masterwork summons terrors and insights palpable enough to be recognized in our present-day world as in the alternate universe where this book takes place. The novel has just been announced as the next selection of Oprah’s Book Club and rushed into stores a month ahead of its original publication date.
Whitehead’s daring vision reconceives the storied Underground Railroad — a real-life pre-Civil War network of homes, hovels and other hiding places forged by whites and blacks to mark a northbound route toward freedom — into a subterranean system of tracks and trains linking south, north and even parts of the Middle West.
Among those rushing desperately to get onboard is Cora, a shy teenage slave on a Georgia plantation where she had “seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to stop theft.”
The agent of Cora’s salvation is an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about the railroad. When they behold in astonishment the gleaming railroad, they ask a white engineer named Lumbly who built such a thing. “Who,” Lumbly replies enigmatically, “builds anything in this country?” Deadpan, cryptic exchanges such as this are scattered throughout the novel, and they remind you that its author has previously concocted plausible worlds in which elevator investigators behave like dark-ops agents (1999’s “The Intuitionist”) and zombie plagues become an everyday occurrence in New York City (2011’s “Zone One”).
“The Underground Railroad” exhibits similar tendencies toward phantasmagoria, as Cora’s first stop on her long, strange trip is a South Carolina you won’t recognize from any account of pre-Emancipation America. There are, for one thing, buildings as tall as 12 stories and, for another, whites holding more enlightened and generous attitudes toward African-Americans than history has recorded.
Or do they? Before Cora’s suspicions of sinister intent in her seeming benefactors can be fully confirmed, she heads via the railroad to North Carolina, where the sight of “corpses hung from trees as rotting ornaments” alerts her to more blatant evil: a state devoted to exterminating black people altogether.
Then to the wastelands of Tennessee, where Cora’s “thick braid of . . . misfortunes” now includes a fiercely persistent slave catcher named Ridgeway, given to long-winded rationales for both his malevolent calling and the dubious institution it serves. “We do our part, slave and slave catcher,” he tells Cora. “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.”
She shuts him up long enough to head for Indiana — and, for a time, freedom. But Cora soon learns, as does the reader, that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.”
What never shifts, flags or wavers throughout “The Underground Railroad” is Cora’s resilience, which becomes analogous to the spirit of a people still wondering, to this day, what it means to be free. As much as any literary classic, Whitehead’s novel poses beautifully shaped questions that speak not just to history, or to the present day, but to eternity itself. This is a great book.