The Underground Railroad is a hell of a book. Like Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters, Whitehead’s book was published in 2016 and takes a slightly science fictional look at slavery in the United States of America.
Winters’ narrative brought slavery into the 21st century and imagined what the peculiar institution would be like in a world of smartphones and high-tech manufacturing. Whitehead leaves slavery in the 19th century, but imagines that the Underground Railroad was exactly that: a set of tunnels extending hundreds of miles through the earth into the wicked hearts of the slave states, capable of whisking runaways into completely new situations in new states. The one thing the stationmasters can’t do — besides survive, for some of them — is predict when the next freedom train is coming, or where it will go.
Whitehead opens his story with Cora, a slave, turning down an offer to try to escape. In the second sentence, Whitehead turns to Cora’s grandmother, how she was captured by Dahomeyans and sold several times on the way to Ouidah, a major slaving port in what is now Benin. In a crisp six pages, Whitehead lays out Ajarry’s life, how many times she was sold, what happened to her owners, how her three husbands went away — one was sold to a sugarcane estate in Florida (where he was surely worked to death), one passed from cholera, and one had his ears bored for stealing honey, “The wounds gave up pus until he wasted away” (p. 7) — and how four of her five children died before they were fully grown. Ajarry drew some conclusions and stayed on the Randall plantation in Georgia cotton country until the end of her life.
Ajarry died in the cotton, the boils bobbing around her like whitecaps on the brute ocean. The last of her village, keeled over in the rows from a knot in her brain, blood pouring from her nose and white froth covering her lips. As if it could have been anywhere else. Liberty was reserved for other people, for the citizens of the City of Pennsylvania bustling a thousand miles to the north. Since the night she was kidnapped she had been appraised and reappraised, each day waking upon the pan of a new scale. Know your value and you know your place in the order. To escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principles of your existence: impossible (p. 8)
Her granddaughter draws some conclusions, too. Here is Whitehead’s very next paragraph:
It was her grandmother talking that Sunday evening when Caesar approached Cora about the underground railroad, and she said no.
Three weeks later she said yes.
This time it was her mother talking. (p. 8)
Cora’s mother escaped. She told no one of her plans, least of all her pre-teen daughter. Unlike most runaways, who were caught and then brought back to the plantation to be tortured and then executed for the edification of the other slaves, forced to witness the spectacle, Cora’s mother Mabel is never caught. The Randall plantation never hears of her again. Mabel’s escape leaves Cora isolated among the other slaves; Whitehead does not hesitate to depict how enslaved people turned on one another for slight advantages, how the brutal regime of the masters was replicated further down the hierarchy. Nor is he shy about how some people found joy in some things anyway, about how they did their best to live and love under a system designed to break them completely. Cora grows up angry at her mother for abandoning her; at the same time, though, Mabel’s escape demonstrates that freedom is a possibility.
When Cora changes her mind and accepts Caesar’s offer, they begin to plan their getaway. And none too soon. Not only has Old Randall passed some years hence, the son who inherited the half of the plantation that Cora labors on, and who does not try to wring every last penny of profit from the system, has reaped the reward of a life of dissipation in New Orleans. The surviving brother has no patience for the alleged softness of his sibling’s stewardship and proceeds with tightening the screws. Cora and Caesar plan carefully, and make their escape one night when all the factors seem to align for a good getaway.
But in the close-knit world of the slave cabins their preparations have not escaped everyone’s notice. Lovey, a friend of Cora’s, catches up with them in the middle of the fields and demands to be taken with them. She slows them down. The alarm had been raised earlier than they thought. Slavecatchers find the little group. Cora and Caesar get away, but Lovey does not. In the melee that leads to the pair’s escape, Cora kills a white boy. Now they will have a price on their heads, with death a certainty if they get caught.
Still, it wouldn’t be much of an Underground Railroad book if the characters were caught and brought straight back to their plantation, and indeed they are not. Cora and Caesar are out of the frying pan and into various fires, for each of the states Cora makes her way to has chosen to deal with slavery in a different way. In South Carolina, they find what appears to be an enlightened approach. Whitehead is having some ironic fun with history. South Carolina has been memorably described by Charles Pierce as “the home office of American sedition,” it was the first state to attempt to secede, and the first shots of the Civil War were fired there. Its firebreathing politicians led their state and nation into the conflagration, so to find South Carolina as the home of a near-socialist, scientific attempt at solving slavery is a satisfying twist. In Whitehead’s book, human property in the state has been nationalized. There are no more individual slaveowners; instead, the government has purchased all of them, provides housing and services, and arranges their labor. Public institutions also encourage enslaved women to be sterilized, and public health authorities are conducting syphilis experiments on enslaved men.
Cora and Caesar decide to take the next Underground train to wherever, but before they can flee a slavecatcher who also pursued Cora’s mother catches up to them. Cora makes it to the Underground, but has to leave Caesar behind. Her travels take her to North Carolina — where slavery has been “solved” by executing any black person who was in the state after a certain date — and then to Tennessee — where the slavecatcher who has been tracking her relentlessly since she left the Randall plantation captures here for a while — and finally to Indiana — where Cora finds a nearly utopian community of runaways, free people of color, and a few whites who extend protection and humanity.
Whitehead captures the feel of societies wrestling with a great evil that brings wealth and position to those in the dominant caste, societies taking what they have convinced themselves are more moral paths but failing utterly to see what matters most: that enslaved people are as human as those who are or would be masters. His spare prose is unsparing, and he’s also very good at showing how such a dehumanizing system hurts everyone involved. The Underground Railroad is no mere catalog of horrors, it’s a taut thriller of someone trying to escape not only the odds, but all of history. She has some allies, some hopes, and even to some extent the respect of her greatest adversaries. Will she make it to the end of the line?