Colson Whitehead‘s novel The Underground Railroad (review copy from Little, Brown) has achieved an interesting double: winning the Pulitzer and the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2017. It’s also shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The Pulitzer, the Clarke and the Booker are unlikely bedfellows, but they show the impact this book has had. Whitehead has written a magical realism novel about slavery in America, following escaped slave Cora on her journey to freedom.
Whitehead literalises the underground railroad of the book’s title, using it as the engine that drives Cora from state to state on her escape, experiencing different aspects of the slave experience. Whitehead moves Cora through time as well as space, enabling him to fictionalise real events that took place over American history. This is an analogue of Pilgrim’s Progress, or the copy of Gulliver’s Travels Cora finds in the library: a journey that is enabled and hindered by people she encounters, and tempting her to end her travelling and settle at various points on her way.
Cora’s journey is one from a closeted, pastoral existence to increasing social and political awareness, and growing personal agency. Each step on her journey broadens her understanding of the world and increases her dissatisfaction, showing a different aspect of the discrimination and exploitation suffered by black people, both enslaved and free. Some of that is obvious: the cruel plantation owners or the weekly lynchings of escaped slaves. But some of it is much more subtle and insidious, including the benevolent white people seeking to instil their own values and practices, a thin veneer of tolerance concealing medical experimentation and other forms of control.
Most of all, The Underground Railroad shows how people are active and complicit in perpetuating systems of oppression. The system sets people against each other, even those that might appear at first blush to be natural allies. Poor Irish immigrants like the maid Rose are keen to separate themselves from those at the bottom of the heap; others find it an outlet for their saviour complexes; still others live in fear of setting themselves against their neighbours by standing up against poor treatment.
Ultimately, Cora’s choice is one to pursue and shape her own destiny, rather than to fall into the choices and structures of others. Freedom comes in many forms, but that is the only one that truly counts.
Goodreads rating: 4*