‘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, both below ground and above, and for perilous stretches the only light showing Cora the way forward is her own shaky belief that there is something else up ahead, something not necessarily better but at least different. She’s been given plenty of reason to doubt.
Indeed, Whitehead is not interested in offering the false truth of an easy outcome for his protagonist in the context of an institution that not only devastated the lives of millions of people over hundreds of years but also poisoned the promise of the American experiment. As one of his characters remarks, ‘And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.’
One could imagine that the potent blend of the improbable and the undeniable in these words helped fuel Whitehead’s decision to turn towards magical realism in The Underground Railroad. The sheer enormity of the crime of slavery in the United States beggars common understanding and, it could be argued, requires more than the standard tools and approaches of realism to apprehend. Toni Morrison turned to the supernatural in Beloved, in which her characters are haunted by ghosts in the years after emancipation, an apt metaphor for the haunting presence of racial injustice in the United States to this day. While ghosts remain figurative in Whitehead’s novel, the railroad, as noted, is made quite literal, as are numerous depredations yet to occur: the antebellum landscape Cora navigates is afflicted not only by the frightening present but also by the segregated Jim Crow future, with nefarious medical experiments carried out on African-American men, zoo-like museum exhibits featuring live participants (of which Cora is one) and many other, more subtle 20th-century crimes and indignities. Rather than giving rise to something odd or whimsical, Whitehead’s use of the tools of the fantastical has a deepening effect. The anachronistic skyscrapers that punctuate the skyline of South Carolina seem beautiful when Cora first encounters them, but they are quickly exposed as troubling monuments dropped down from the skies of the future, and the shadows they cast are long.
Cora’s journey north isn’t unremittingly grim. She makes friends, finds moments of respite and even falls briefly, tragically in love. In this context, one wishes that Whitehead had attended a touch more to the interior life of his central character. We spend a tremendous amount of time seeing things from Cora’s perspective and get a very good sense of what she thinks about her travails, but less of an idea about how she feels. I don’t mean that we aren’t told when she is happy or devastated or horrified or numb; we are, and quite frequently. It’s just that Whitehead often stops short of creating the granular textures of feeling and perception, which he employed to great effect in his marvellous first novel, The Intuitionist, and which we encounter here in a brief, beautifully poignant sketch about the fate of Cora’s mother.
Still, the implications of Cora’s journey are rarely less than devastating. Towards the end, she recalls the words of an acquaintance: ‘If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.’ Given that Cora is travelling far beneath the earth, she comes quickly to a bitter realisation: ‘It was a joke, then, from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.’