Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I loved this story, but for reasons different than what I originally anticipated.

The idea of an actual underground railroad magically whisking slaves away to freedom conjured up fantastical scenes of billowing smoke masking masses of huddled people.

I saw train stations full of fugitives. I imagined a train version of the immigrant experience at the turn of the 20th century as thousands fled Europe by ship. I thought my enjoyment of this story would center around the realness of the rails.

However, the magical realism that allowed the underground railroad to exist as more than a metaphor added little joy to the story for me. Mostly, the physical railroad was functional involving the literal transport of passengers, usually in small numbers. The actual stations served as markers for anyone associated with the abolitionist movement.

The memorable reading experience stemmed from both the underground railroad as metaphor, and Cora's journey to freedom, true freedom.

Within her plantation life, Cora was an outcast. She grew up knowing that her mother abandoned her for her own freedom. Cora's mother was the one slave who escaped. As Cora matured, she wrestled with why her mother would leave her. Finally, after being brutally raped, Cora decided to take another slave up on his offer to lead her to the underground railroad.


As Cora escapes the plantation, she was drenched in mud scratching at mosquito bites anxiously awaiting first light. However, these circumstances did not diminish her hope. She paused to appreciate her progress.

“This was the farthest she had ever been from home. Even if she were dragged away at this moment and put in chains, she would still have these miles.”

Cora fled her captivity to seek freedom and opportunity. Not at all an easy decision for her. Earlier in the story another slave, who tried to escape and was recaptured, was whipped, castrated, seasoned, and cooked. Mentally marking this point where she had reached the farthest place from her home spurred her on this perilous journey.

I felt like Whitehead was allowing Cora to briefly appreciate her position, but hinting at the reader that there were so many more legs to Cora's journey. Events to come that neither she nor the reader could anticipate.

At one point the fugitives hid in a barn full of chains. The entire description of the collection screamed that Cora's journey would not go well:

“She saw the chains first. Thousands of them dangled off the wall on nails in a morbid inventory of manacles and fetters, of shackles for ankles and wrists and necks in all varieties and combinations.”

The description continued for eight more sentences. Chilling reading that made me fear for Cora's fate.

After killing a white boy, Caesar and Cora barely made it to the closest underground railroad station. On that first ride, the conductor told her that she should pay attention:

“If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed though and you’ll find the true face of America.”

When Cora looked outside the windows, she saw nothing. It was pitch black.

The first stop was South Carolina where ex-slaves had the illusion of freedom. Cora hid under an assumed name and found domestic work caring for children. Soon she was recruited for work in a natural history museum that used people as human statues within their exhibits.

She re-enacted three scenes illustrating the slave trade and plantation life. None of the scenes were accurate, and increasingly Cora saw the flaws within this so-called free state.

In one scene, Cora visited her doctor who offered to tie her tubes so she could "take control over your own destiny." Cora was allowed to decline the procedure, but others were not. People who must submit to this birth control: "Colored women who have already birthed more than two children, in the name of population control. Imbeciles and the otherwise mentally unfit, for obvious reasons. Habitual criminals."

Cora connected this mandatory surgery to just another form of stealing futures. Her disappointment with this freedom was palpable.

She grew tired of the white people staring at her in her display case. She made a game out of figuring out which one person was the weakest link in each tour group that passed by her exhibit. Then she gave them her evil eye.

“Looking up from the slave wheel or the hut’s glass fire to pin a person in place like one of the beetles or mites in the insect exhibits. They always broke, the people, not expecting this weird attack, staggering back or looking at the floor or forcing their companions to pull them away. It was a fine lesson, Cora thought, to learn that the slave, the African in your midst, is looking at you, too.”

Unfortunately, someone was looking for Cora: the slave catcher Ridgeway, who years before failed to capture Cora's runaway mother. He was hell-bent on finding Cora. As the villain, Ridgeway was evil and terrifying, but what truly made him stand out as a robber baron of human lives was his attitude about American Westward expansion.

He believed that if slaves were supposed to be free, then they would not be in chains. If Native Americans were supposed to own land, then they would still have their land. Ridgeway embraced the idea that whites were racially superior, which destined them to own this new world.

“Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavors—if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.”

With Ridgeway close by, Cora had to flee South Carolina. Once again, when she rode the rails, her view was pitch black.

After a few trips into the blackness of America, she finally understood the conductor's meaning: America was a vast emptiness. Nothing was there for her. No one to truly help her. No allies for any escaped slave. She was on her own.

Cora connected this realization to the American Imperative or Manifest Destiny. She thought about the paradox of the Declaration of Independence.

She recognized that white men fled their European homes for freedom, but these same men were perfectly happy to deny freedom to a great many people.

She knew that Native Americans had originally worked the land that she had tilled. She also had heard white men bragging about "the efficiency of the massacres, where they killed women and babies, and strangled their futures in the crib."

Cora was a strong and sympathetic character. Reading about numerous traumatizing events in her life was tragic enough, but seeing her own thinking grow to recognize the plight she was in was the true gut punch.

She continued hiding out in a variety of places. Always searching for where she belonged. Revisiting this concept of Manifest Destiny in some thought-provoking conversations. Ultimately, the resolution did complete several character arcs, but left some loose ends.

Reading builds empathy and this book certainly helped me see America through the eyes of an escaped slave struggling to find her place in an imperfect country.

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