Whitehead’s ‘Underground Railroad’ an unforgettable journey through slavery

“The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead
“The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead Tribune

“The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead; Doubleday (306 pages, $26.95)

Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” is a ruthless and moving look at America’s original sin, the belief in white supremacy that let it steal a continent’s worth of land from one race and enslave another. Through the story of a teenager named Cora who runs away from a Georgia plantation in 1850, Whitehead brings the reader inside the experience of knowing that your body, your choices, your life are not your own.

Originally set for mid-September, the publication date for “The Underground Railroad” was moved up after it was announced as the first book club pick by Oprah Winfrey in over a year. (It’s also one of the five books on President Obama’s vacation reading list.)

Whitehead, a New Yorker and Harvard graduate, has collected a number of other honors already, including a MacArthur “genius” grant and a Pulitzer finalist slot. His six previous novels ranged widely in subject and style, although all had some comic tone. His 1999 debut, “The Intuitionist,” had touches of fantasy; “Sag Harbor” in 2009 was realistic and semiautobiographical; “Zone One” in 2011 was a zombie apocalypse story.

“The Underground Railroad” blends historical fiction – Whitehead read many slave narratives and other sources in his research – with magical realism to create a striking, beautifully crafted novel that echoes a variety of works, notably Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” and Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels.”

Born on the sprawling Randall plantation in Georgia, Cora grows up as a “stray,” a child with no family. Most often, such children’s families have died or been sold away. But Cora’s mother, Mabel, escaped – the only slave from Randall to do so successfully – when her daughter was small. Left behind and raised haphazardly, Cora is embittered by her mother’s desertion and fiercely independent.

Her stoicism may have come down from her grandmother, Ajarry, who was captured in West Africa as a child. “In America,” she learns, “the quirk was that people were things. Best to cut your losses on an old man who won’t survive a trip across the ocean. A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth. A slavegirl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money. If you were a thing – a cart or a horse or a slave – your value determined your possibilities.”

When Cora is about 16, already a survivor of rape and other brutalities, another young slave named Caesar proposes that the two of them escape. They know the risks. Whitehead describes the punishment meted out to another slave who runs and is caught: three days of torture, observed by invited white guests from Atlanta and Savannah and a “newspaper man from London come to report on the American scene,” before he is burned alive.

But escape Cora and Caesar do, and they make it to one of the stops on the Underground Railroad of the title. Historically, that name was a metaphor for the network of people, black and white, who aided runaways in their long journeys to the free states. That network is part of Cora’s story, too, but Whitehead also creates an actual railroad, a system of cobbled-together trains running at unpredictable intervals through deep, dark tunnels, “springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus.”

When they first see it, Caesar asks the man helping them, “Who built it?”

The reply: “Who builds anything in this country?”

By train and other means, first with Caesar and later alone, Cora will travel through several Southern states, each of which Whitehead has reimagined as variations on history.

Over and over Whitehead shows us the bitter human losses of slavery, not just individual death and abuse but the systematic destruction of the bonds of family and friendship among black people. Any time his characters begin to form any kind of network of love or support, whites sweep in to destroy those fragile webs and leave them helpless once again. Cora never learns the answer to the mystery of her mother’s flight, but we do, and it will fairly crack your heart.

Whitehead’s style in “The Underground Railroad” – cool, almost detached, clinical in its detail with no wasted motion – contrasts and hence intensifies the book’s harrowing story. Through it all, Cora endures, and, more than a century and a half after it is set, her story recalls that famous line from William Faulkner, another writer whose essential subject was race: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”