Schoolchildren, when they learn of the Underground Railroad, sometimes picture an actual train on actual tracks beneath the ground—a sort of subway. When I first became aware of The Underground Railroad, a few years back, the pre-Civil War era novel having made quite a splash in the publishing world at the time, and was given further to understand it concerned a literal underground railroad, a long-distance subway for escaping slaves, I assumed it must be a book for kids.
The author, I guessed, had decided he could most effectively reach his young readership, and best show the determination and courage not only of those fleeing bondage for freedom in the North, but of those who helped them in their flight, by making the means of their escape a conveyance that was not a metaphor.
That misimpression had been dispelled by the time I got around myself to reading Colson Whitehead’s book; I was no longer expecting a simplistic but instructive tale geared toward juveniles. I knew the train in the story was nothing like, say, the Polar Express, and was a vehicle somehow for surveying America’s dark racist past—even perhaps its present. The novel’s protagonist may be a girl barely in her teens, but I would learn in short order it explored the weightiest of adult themes, albeit displaying as well what I have come to know is Whitehead’s trademark affinity for the fantastic.
While the events it describes are deadly serious and have without question the ring of historical truth, it showcases, however improbably, a Swiftian inventiveness and Marquez-like make-believe. This mixture indeed ought not to work—only it does. Thanks to the author’s consummate skill in weaving together the disparate threads of his ingenious conception, and as a storyteller plain and simple, there is very little willing required of the reader to suspend his or her disbelief.
Whitehead’s central conceit of the train is able to serve, then, as a device to send his protagonist, Cora, like Lemuel Gulliver on a journey to a series of fanciful worlds starkly different one from the next. In this case, those worlds are the successive states the Underground Railroad passes through in its progress north, each of which has been radically reimagined so as to represent or illustrate a possible state of race relations, a particular manifestation of white supremacy, a specific brand of racial oppression. With its numerous anachronisms—the unnamed South Carolina city where Cora spends an interval features, for example, a twelve-story skyscraper, complete with elevator, whose top floors house the headquarters of the quasi-governmental organization charged with “negro uplift” in the state along with facilities, dependent on technology borrowed from the twentieth century, for performing medical procedures which were unknown in the eighteen-fifties–Whitehead’s alternative history has a steam punk feel to it at times. He is a master of genre blending, making Cora’s an odyssey in time as well as space. First and foremost, though, The Underground Railroad is a taut and compelling adventure story, a harrowing tale of inhuman cruelty, unceasing peril, and survival against all odds.
Cora’s story, even while the implacable forces aligned against her and the unrelenting adversity she confronts almost defy reason, strikes me as entirely credible. And Cora herself is a fully realized, three-dimensional character. Others among the cast, it must be noted by contrast, are to a degree types and without much depth. But it is impossible to count any lack of development in its characters as a serious flaw in a book with such a strong allegorical component.
In a talk he gave in 2019 at Rutgers University, Camden, Whitehead said he had first had the idea for the book that eventually became The Underground Railroad some two decades before, when he was just starting out as a writer. He put the idea on the back burner to percolate while he pursued other projects. Having been a fan as a kid of fantasy literature, sci-fi, and shows like The Twilight Zone which took the bizarre and added it to ordinary life to potent effect, he has tried his hand at genre fiction on occasion in his writing career. His debut novel in 1999 was a speculative work which Time magazine called the best “racial allegory” since Ralph Ellison. His 2011 book, Zone One, was a post-apocalyptic zombie novel.
Finally, six or seven years ago—encouraged, he said, by his wife—he decided he was ready to take up the Underground Railroad project. In preparation, he read a number of slave narratives to gain a fuller idea of what life was life for blacks on plantations in the Deep South. And because he not only meant to depict slavery as the abomination it was, but wanted as well “to have a conversation with history,” he made further researches into the litany, and legacy, of wrongs done to nonwhites in America since the country’s founding.
The book he wound up with, as has been seen, is both realistic and fantastic. In the Q and A part of that talk at Rutgers, someone brought up Magical Realism, and Whitehead responded that he admired how Gabriel Garcia Marquez alternated so effectively between the two, adding that he was honored even to be mentioned in the same breath as the Colombian Nobel laureate.
As for the “conversation with history” the novel attempts—a grownup conversation to be sure—I can state with certainty that the reader—the sophisticated reader—will find it worth heeding and joining in.