Title: The Underground Railroad
Rating; 4 Stars
Probably most people know the premise of this novel by now. Whitehead imagines the underground railroad as an actual railroad. Escaped slaves are conducted down through a hidden trap door to a train station, where periodically a train would come through to usher them to the next stop, hopefully arriving ultimately someplace in the North. This is the story of Cora, a slave trying to find her way to freedom.
The railroad itself is at most a minor part of the story. What is interesting is what happens to Cora at each stop after she gets off and is once again above ground. Each state that she stops at is a different manifestation of the slave experience.
She first escapes from Georgia. Georgia is the deep South cotton plantation kind of slavery. Life is hard, the overseer is brutal, and her owner is sadistic. Slaves are routinely tortured. Slaves that try to escape are always found and once returned, are executed slowly and brutally over days. This is slavery at its most bestial.
Once she escapes Georgia, she ends up in South Carolina. Here she thinks that she’s found peace. The races seem to peacefully co-exist. White people are educating the slaves. At the dormitory that she stays at, the white caretaker seems to be peculiarly persistent on some subjects. As she learns over time, all of the slaves in town are being sterilized and experimented upon. Specifically the men are being infected and not treated for syphilis (aka Tuskegee Experiment). As a slave, she learns once again that she has no ownership over her body. The whites see her as non human. There’s an indirect point here that slavery isn’t just black and white. There are parallels here between the slaves of America and the enslaved Jewish people in the death / concentration camps during WWII.
Her next stop is North Carolina. What is unusual here is that there are no black people anywhere. The station master there hurriedly sneaks her into his house and hides her in a secret part of his attic (again with the echoes to Nazism). There she learns the truth. In North Carolina they’ve have outlawed black slaves and are instead using white indentured servants. Black slaves captured in the state are hung and are then left swinging on a road as a warning for all to see. Eradication of a subjugated people is a historical trope.
Next up is Tennessee. Here you see God’s wrath upon those that practice slavery. Nearly everywhere she goes in the state has been burnt in a fire or is ravaged by plague. The remaining whites live in great sorrow.
Her last major stop is Indiana. Here, blacks have a realistic opportunity to break the bonds of their servitude. There is a large farm that is communally run by blacks. There is a large library in which Cora can read. Musicians come to play. Noted speakers come to lecture. This is as close to an escaped slave utopia that she can hope to find. As to be expected, the nearby white settlers hate to see this success and are determined to destroy it.
As can be imagined, this is a heartbreaking book of brutality. Cora loses everything she loves. Through it all, her spirit and determinism powers her.