'The Underground Railroad' tells a disturbingly real story of slavery

Novelist Colson Whitehead depicts the perversions and horrors of slavery in 19th-century America through the story of the multiple escape attempts of a woman named Cora.

The Underground Railroad By Colson Whitehead Knopf Doubleday 320 pp.

Novelist Colson Whitehead's 2011 "Zone One" was essentially required to contain gruesome scenes of blood and carnage. The book was a literary zombie novel, descended in part from dozens of gore-splattered zombie movies that make human dismemberment an almost cheerful affair. The novel was also a serious meditation on human nature composed in sentences of unerring beauty. Some critics were endlessly astonished by this juxtaposition of elements, but Whitehead showed that a literary zombie novel was no contradiction.

While the violence of "Zone One" was more than spectacle, it had a certain moral weightlessness derived from the zombie genre.  His new novel, The Underground Railroad, also has passages of astounding physical violence, yet they are more deeply disturbing than any bloodshed in his previous book. Whitehead depicts the perversions and horrors of slavery in 19th-century America through the story of the multiple escape attempts of a woman named Cora. It’s not inevitable that this subject matter inspire serious treatment – Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 movie "Django Unchained" trivialized the suffering of slaves with its leering enjoyment of graphic torture. But Whitehead neither disguises nor delights in the ubiquity of extreme violence, presenting it as an inescapable daily reality, a monstrous fact of life become so familiar that “travesties … were a kind of weather.”

Cora is both a child and grandchild of slaves, and while the story touches briefly on the original abduction of her grandmother from Africa, episodes from Cora’s life on a Georgia plantation form the primary opening narrative. Her mother attempts to escape when she is only 10 or 11 – ages are an approximate matter for slaves on the plantation – leaving Cora a “stray.” She endures rape, whippings, beatings, and the ceaseless psychological torment of enslavement before attempting an escape of her own while still only a teenager.

Most of the novel has firm roots in historical reality. Different sections of the narrative are interrupted by the brief transcripts of actual 19th-century advertisements posted by the owners of runaway slaves. These are astonishing in their cruelty and self-delusion, and they make clear that slave owners saw slaves as tools and property. One ad complains that a slave ran away “without provocation,” as if the owner were genuinely surprised that someone might object to being a slave.

The central departure from history is the novel’s conceit that the Underground Railroad was an actual system of subterranean tracks and tunnels spanning the Southern states. Cora escapes from Georgia on this literalized metaphor, an intriguing touch of surrealism that somehow seems completely plausible. When she asks the train conductor who built the network of rails, he responds as if she should know better: “Who builds anything in this country?”

Whitehead is a writer of extraordinary stylistic powers. A broken old woman is “bent into the sum of her mistakes.” As a boy watches his blacksmith father work, “the sunset glow of molten iron bewitched him, the way the color emerged in the stock slow and then fast, overtaking it like an emotion, the sudden pliability and restless writhing of the thing as it waited for purpose.” The language of the living – writhing, restless, emotion – suffuses a passage describing an inanimate implement. The subtext is clear and powerful: in the demented culture and economy of 19th-century America, the living become tools and tools come to life.

"The Underground Railroad" has moments of poignancy and horror and bleak humor. Whitehead shows how the miseries of slavery extend far beyond physical punishment and forced labor, infecting and corrupting the smallest pleasures with fear and humiliation. He also captures the hypocrisy of both white slave owners and northern whites who consider themselves enlightened and unprejudiced.

The novel is less successful in delineating distinct and psychologically plausible characters. The point of view sometimes swings jarringly between essayistic pronouncement and interior monologue, and Cora remains something of a cipher – less a fully realized fictional character than a means of making points. The points made are powerful and true, but the novel sometimes suffers from a didactic impulse that restates explicitly what is already clear. Despite these flaws, the book offers many testaments to Whitehead’s considerable talents and examines a deeply relevant and disturbing period of American history.

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