Review: ‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This review of “The Underground Railroad” contains what might be considered spoilers. At least they were to me. For that, you can blame Google.

Now, it was not my intention to run into spoilers when I began reading Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. I knew little of the book besides what I’d read in reviews when it came out: that it was about the journey of a runaway Georgia slave in the mid-19th century on an Underground Railroad made flesh — a genuine subterranean track of steel and locomotives and hidden train stations and clandestine conductors. That was enough; I got caught up in it very easily.

But about a third of the way into the book, Cora, the runaway, enters a South Carolina fantastically different from the one I was familiar with from school. At this point, Whitehead made a reference to a 12-story structure called the Griffin Building.

This started me down an Internet rabbit hole. I understood the literary license of an altered South Carolina, but having some familiarity with the state — and a fascination with skyscrapers — I started to wonder where this Griffin Building was and if it still existed. Did I walk by it in Charleston? Was it in Columbia? Greenville? What happened to it? And could such a building have existed in the South of the 1850s, before the days of common safety elevators? It sounded like a fascinating story in itself.

(The spoilers start here.)

Curiosity having gotten the better of me, I typed “Griffin Building” into Google. Foolish me. Immediately, I got referred to … reviews and synopses of “The Underground Railroad.”

In other words, there IS no Griffin Building. Whitehead made it up, like Ralph Ellison did with the paint factory in “Invisible Man.”

And thus, in a tiny way, broke the spell the book had cast over me.

This wasn’t a terrible thing, not like having a friend reveal that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father before you see “The Empire Strikes Back.” (For the three people who haven’t seen “The Empire Strikes Back,” sorry. Would it help if I didn’t tell you about Rosebud?) Nevertheless, it was mildly disappointing, because until that point, aside from the Underground Railroad itself, I thought Whitehead’s book was more anchored in reality than metaphor – and I was completely absorbed in that reality.

This is largely because of the opening section of the book, a tour de force chronicle of the Middle Passage and plantation life.

I haven’t read much in the way of slave narratives or antebellum histories, but I can’t remember reading a more casually incisive description of American slavery. In Whitehead’s brutal storytelling, you never forget that slaves are seen as barely animate property; the owners and overseers call the enslaved “it,” coolly erasing their humanity in one word. They’re whipped and raped and degraded. Their only value is as field workers or concubines.

I struggled to get through that opening portion. Not because of the writing – which is uniformly brilliant – but because of the characters’ cruelty, rooted in history, sharp edges showing.

Cora, the character at the heart of the novel, is the daughter of a slave named Mabel, who had fled their plantation when Cora was a child. The abandoned Cora finally bolts herself, as much in pursuit of her mother as freedom. She and Caesar, another slave, make their way to a stop on the Railroad, with slavecatchers led by the grim Ridgeway in pursuit.

From here, Whitehead’s South becomes a combination of reality and dream (or nightmare, depending on the action). The unnamed South Carolina town, which appears to treat blacks well – at least, they are allowed jobs and reasonable housing – turns out to be a cover for an insidious plot. Cora then escapes to North Carolina, where she is housed in a tiny attic crawl space (shades of Anne Frank) and watches a daily display in which blacks and their white helpers are tortured and put to death amid a cheery, “Music Man”-type gathering. (Or, perhaps, “The Lottery.”)

Then it’s to Tennessee, where she’s caught by Ridgeway and his bizarre band. There’s one more escape – to a utopian community in Indiana – and a final showdown with Ridgeway.

Whitehead’s metaphorical plotting has a point: He’s tracing a path of African-American history, in Cora’s stops obliquely referencing the Scottsboro Boys, the Ku Klux Klan and perhaps a cross of Back to Africa with New Harmony or Oneida. Thanks to Whitehead’s imaginative gifts, the book’s atmosphere is constantly energized.

But there also seems to be a bit of 19th-century dime novel in the book as well. Ridgeway, in particular, comes across as a kind of Bond villain, an almost-cultured man capable of brisk violence as well as a taunting patience. Even when he’s off stage, you know he’s going to emerge for a final battle, like a monster in a horror movie.

“The Underground Railroad” concludes on a rather inconclusive note, as if Whitehead is saying a future of reconciliation and equality, after all this injustice, is not yet written. (He’s right, of course.) It’s both somewhat unsatisfying and absolutely appropriate.

Which gets back to my Googling and spoiler revelations, which felt like a spell being broken. It’s a spell that would have broken anyway – by the end of the South Carolina chapter, it’s obvious that Whitehead is using a kind of magical (metaphorical?) realism to tell his tale – but I wondered when I would have figured that out for myself, rather than through perusing year-old reviews.

But maybe that’s appropriate, too. Americans have too often told stories of slavery and the Old South that soften the reality, whether it’s through singing darkies or noble plantation owners or the so-called Lost Cause. But no amount of magic can remove the stain of slavery – and racism — on American history. So despite its touch of the unreal, “The Underground Railroad” always has a hard reality, just below the surface. It’s one we’re still grappling with more than 150 years later.

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