I chose The Underground Railroad as a Christmas present for my wife. It had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (2017), and the USA National Book award. That seemed a good recommendation.
The blurb also attracted me, but words like harrowing and brutal put her off. Yes, there are some gruesome moments in the book, but they are nothing compared to what we see on TV most days. Anyone who can stomach 9pm thrillers like Waking the Dead, or Line of Duty could certainly stomach this.
The Underground Railroad is a novel about slavery. The first episode takes place on a slave plantation, and shows the life and experiences of Cora. Later she escapes and goes on the run. The episodes in the rest of the novel show life as it was for black people elsewhere in the USA in the middle of the 19th century.
Cora’s first port of call is a state where slavery has been abolished. Instead, black people, including runaway slaves, are placed in hostels, or farmed out to local families, and given work to do. Cora thinks this is a very benign environment until they encourage her to undergo voluntary sterilisation. The real agenda is control of the growing black population.
Next Cora heads to a state where the desire to eliminate blacks is much more explicit. The dead line the roadsides, hung from trees. She finds herself in the home of a former underground railroad helper, but he is terrified by a new political régime. He is too scared to help her escape. Trapped in an attic, and looking through a tiny window, Cora witnesses the hysterical racism of the townsfolk, and the cruel hanging of innocent blacks. Her helper comes to a gruesome end, but she escapes.
A slave catcher is sent to hunt Cora, and she is captured. She is to be taken back “home” where there will be violent reprisals. Again she escapes, finding herself now in a free community of black people. They live on a shared farm. Many are freed or escaped slaves. Political speakers come here to Saturday night gatherings, and discuss slavery and democracy, and this gives the writer some opportunities to preach and philosophise.
This is not the first fictional account of the underground railroad, an organisation which helped slaves to escape bondage. Slaves were hidden in barns or cellars and smuggled under tarpaulins in wagons, at great risk to themselves and their supporters.
But Colson Whitehead treats the term literally. The sections when Cora moves from one episode to the next take place on an actual underground railway! With steam trains!! So this is not a conventional novel. This is not a realism or naturalism.
And the story is not really about Cora’s escape, and the dangers associated with it. Cora is really only an emblem or a type. She is a picaresque heroine in a way, because the writer sends her on a journey through America in order to show us the state of the nation. But it’s not a picaresque novel in the conventional sense – there is no humour, and she is a just a victim, not an amusing rogue like, for example, Tom Jones.
Colson Whitehead writes well. You can imagine the settings, and the characters and dialogue seem real. But it’s all undercut by the treatment of the railroad, which makes the story predictable and formulaic. The first escape is dramatic, but not the rest. It’s obvious that there will just be more, similar episodes until the book ends. So there is little suspense.
The approach made it harder for me to identify with Cora and her sufferings. They were certainly moving, shocking and pitiful, and Whitehead describes them in detail. But it was obvious that she would survive each adventure, because the writer’s prime intention was clearly not to describe the suspense of the journey, but to show the different aspects of American society she encounters.
I suppose it’s not good to criticise a book for being what it is, and not what you want it to be. It’s like criticising a cow for not being a horse. But sending a hero on a journey is a classic way to show a society’s flaws and hypocrisies – Oliver Twist and Huckleberry Finn are prime examples. It’s a technique often used in American literature – The Grapes of Wrath for example. I enjoyed these books much more.
When Steinbeck places the workers in the government camp in The Grapes of Wrath, and they first encounter the benefits of Roosevelt’s New Deal, we are made to realise the beneficial impact of socialist reforms in the USA. By this time in the novel the reader feels real commitment to the characters because we have been on their journey with them, every inch of the way from Oklahoma to California. I didn’t feel like that about Cora.
Alex Preston, writing in The Observer claims that this novel opens up thrilling new vistas for the novel itself.
Maybe he’s right. But I see the lack of realism as a weakness. The novel becomes a pamphlet, or a propaganda piece. It’s not really about a person called Cora, who becomes a travelling companion with whom we share joys and fears. It’s about a social evil that we all abhor. It’s about a corrupt and racist society. But Cora isn’t really an interesting person. She’s just a device to show us that society.
I think you could make the same criticism of some of the other characters too. They are really stereotypes or caricatures, in my view – the slave catcher, the helper who is caught, the black politician.
I would want not put anyone off reading this book. It was ok, and certainly had a valuable message. But it didn’t live up to the plaudits it has received.