My rating: 4 stars
In the Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead tells the story of a slave, Cora, who managed to escape a cotton plantation in 19th century America, while raising stimulating questions about racism, the true meaning of freedom and the importance of education to genuinely achieve liberty. Additionally, wrapped up in these issues, there is a reflection on motherhood from the point of view of a daughter who felt abandoned.
Cora was a slave at the Randall plantation in Georgia when the newly arrived Caesar approached her about running North via the underground railroad – a boxcar pulled by a steam locomotive moving on rails through a tunnel heading to the free states and Canada. In real life, though, the Underground Railroad was a network of safehouses, secret routes and abolitionists who aided escaped slaves. This difference added a pinch of magical realism to a historical fiction novel without overpowering it.
Although Cora is the main character in this novel, we are first introduced to her grandmother, Ajarry, who believed that it was impossible to escape the plantation. It didn’t feel at all illogical to start the book with an overview of Ajarry’s story, seeing that Cora’s first answer to Caesar’s proposal was influenced by her – she refused to flee. Three weeks later, however, she changed her mind. At the time of her first response, she was thinking as her grandmother, while afterwards she was assessing the situation from the point of view of her mother.
Cora’s mother had escaped the plantation many years before without taking her, reason why sometimes she thought about her with hate. She wondered how she could have run away and left her behind. I really liked the moments when we are presented with Cora’s most intimate feelings and are almost given access to her subconscious. I wish there were more of these moments throughout the novel, because in some instances I felt a bit disconnected from the characters. Having said that, as soon as Cora got in the underground railroad and headed North, the narration becomes more personal and less detached.
In spite of escaping captivity through the underground railroad, Cora and Caesar remained in great peril. Not only the slave-catcher Ridgeway was sent in their pursuit, but their first experiences were not as inoffensive as they first thought. Even in South Carolina (where they encountered a completely different work system from the one they had previously experienced), black people were still being used for the benefit of white people, just in a different manner.
The atrocities committed against slaves are well-documented throughout the book, although not in a sensationalist way. Cora had to endure much suffering at the Randall plantation. She was raped, beaten and whipped. To make things worst, she was also an outcast amongst the other slaves, reason why she had to spend the nights at a cabin they called the Hob. Her age is not indubitably stated. She believed herself to be around sixteen or seventeen years old. Not knowing her birthday didn’t bother her, though.
“What did you get for that, for knowing the day you were born into the white man’s world? It didn’t seem like the thing to remember. More like to forget.”
One of the thought-provoking aspects of Cora’s portrayal is her feeling like two different people at the same time. While one was enslaved, the other was a free being. She once tried to protect a younger slave, despite knowing the severed consequences that awaited her. But, in other instances, she had witnessed fellow Africans being mistreated and had done nothing. This disparity stemmed from the fact that white people tortured slaves in order to get them rid of their identity and desire to be free.
Caesar had a different experience as a slave from Cora. Before being taken to the Randall plantation, he had been a slave at a farm in Virginia owned by Mrs Garner. Her plan was to free him and his family upon her death. She could be considered somewhat liberal for an owner of slaves and even taught them how to read. Nevertheless, she died without freeing them, and her niece sold him instead.
Unfortunately, the pacing of the narrative isn’t always perfect. More than halfway through the book, an important event takes place, but the way in which it is presented made it less impactful than it should have been. Also, the first chapters about Cora’s days as a slave in Georgia are slightly confusing. There are so many characters being mentioned in quick succession that I had a hard time distinguishing them and understanding what was happening. However, everything becomes easier to grasp with each new chapter.
At the beginning of the book, when we are being told about how Ajarry was turned into a slave and taken from Africa to America, there is a quick reference to the role of the Portuguese in the slave trade, which remembered me of how we don’t address this issue. There seems to be a tendency, in Portugal, to praise the courage of those who sailed to unknown lands during the Age of Discoveries, but then glossing over the negative and brutal outcomes of it – turning the Africans into slaves and taking over their lands.
Colson Whitehead managed to add into the story a debate about race issues, which continues to be extremely relevant, without overlooking the plot. At times, I felt that the novel needed to delve into the characters’ personal experiences more deeply, but that didn’t make some of the final revelations less impactful or heart-breaking.