Colson Whitehead unpacks American slavery in an innovative narrative, where the passage to freedom is not couched in a metaphor of the underground railroad but is an actual submerged network of locomotives and tracks, complete with depots and conductors shuttling furtive but amazed “passengers”. They marvel at the mechanical wonder along with the tunnel construction wondering how they were built and by whom. This fanciful and central plot element distinguishes Underground Railroad from other neo-slave narratives and pushes the reader to consider the risks white abolitionists took and to examine critically their motivations. Of course, the work’s primary focus is the plight of the enslaved, those who fled bondage into uncertainty and degraded forms of freedom falling far short of a utopic promised land.
The runaway slave at the center of the novel is Cora, whose mother Mabel successfully escapes and never returns, abandoning her daughter. Before the mother’s disappearance, the grandmother has already died. So, the protagonist is orphaned, left holding onto the tenuous legacy of her grandmother’s garden, a small “patch of dirt”. Whitehead uses Cora’s dilemmas throughout the novel to suggest whites were not always the sole culprits meting out cruelty and that the dehumanizing effect of slavery often extended to the enslaved as well. Cora suffers cruel whippings at the hands of her owner but also endures the trauma of alienation and violation, shunned by most of her own community. After making the fateful decision one day to stand up against her master and be her “human-self” instead of her “slave-self”, ending in disastrous results, the browbeaten girl agrees to run.
She is doggedly pursued by a relentless slave catcher as she moves from state to state. Whitehead intersperses her saga, always suspenseful and sometimes terrifying, with authentic fugitive slave wanted posters, flattened, one-dimensional descriptions that the author upends in the fully-realized life of fictional Cora. The author exposes the roots of American identity that shaped the nation’s character then and continues to now.
Neo-slave narratives serve as testimony and give voice to the voiceless and remain staples in literary fiction, and one might wonder why that is. Toni Morrison in her novel Beloved offers a Biblical analogy of Christ as an answer — anything not laid to rest properly will rise again. The Underground Railroad, an uncompromising and lyrical witnessing, is an engaging read that urges us not only to remember but also to understand.