‘The thing arrived in its hulking strangeness … The locomotive was black, an ungainly contraption led by the triangular snout of the cowcatcher, though there would be few animals where this engine was headed.’ It’s how you imagine it when you first hear of the underground railroad as a child: steam trains that ran on gleaming subterranean rails, carrying slaves to freedom at great risk to their engineers and conductors. Even when I was told, more than once, that there weren’t ‘real trains’ – that the underground railroad was actually a clandestine network of hiding places and safe routes along which escaping slaves could travel north out of the states in which slavery was legal – I continued to imagine the rails and tunnels and those fearsomely loud whistles as the trains pulled into their stations. In his important new novel, The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead doesn’t simply evoke that common childhood misconception (one he has spoken publicly about having shared himself), he makes it real. When his heroine, Cora, flees the plantation on which she has been enslaved, she does so on a series of actual hidden trains.
While we never really learn who has undertaken the mighty enterprise of digging the tunnels and laying the tracks, Whitehead underscores the central role of imagination in the endeavour. It’s a long, dangerous journey,