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Book review: Novel blurs lines dividing slavery, freedom

Ella Salvator/For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Book review
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“The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” tells the story of Cora, a runaway slave from Georgia, as she discovers the Underground Railroad is a literal railroad. The station agent tells her, “To truly see the face of America, you must ride the underground rails and look out your window.”

Cora sees only darkness. In Whitehead’s book, darkness is a character that takes a different shape in every chapter.

Cora’s first stop on the Underground Railroad is South Carolina, where the state is embracing “Slave Uplift.” There, Cora finds a perverse sanctuary. She works for wages and lives in a project. She socializes, attends concerts and wears real cotton dresses. She receives new paperwork indicating that she is no longer a slave but rather the property of the U.S. Government.

“That’s a technicality,” said the station agent.

Soon, Cora figures out that strange medical experiments (reminiscent of the experience of Henrietta Lacks) are being performed at the hospital. Reproductive bans are set for black criminals and the mentally ill. In an attempt to genetically erase traits of aggression from the black population, the doctors want Cora to set an example to the other women in the projects by agreeing to a surgery that would render her infertile.

Cora remains on the run, hunted by a determined slave catcher named Ridgeway, who is driven by manifest destiny on steroids, something he calls “American Spirit.” She narrowly escapes to the platform and waits in total darkness for days for another train to arrive.

After several more stops on the Underground Railroad, Cora ends up in Indiana.

It seems as though Cora is finally free. The Valentine farm is a haven for runaways. There, she falls in love and owns her first book, an old Farmer’s Almanac. But, right when Cora and the reader begin to relax, everything is shattered and Cora must face Ridgeway one final time.

“The Underground Railroad” compresses two centuries of American history, collaging images that began with the horrors of American slavery and extend to the systemic and overt racism of today. Perhaps, America was never meant to exist; after all, it is built by “stolen bodies working stolen land,” writes Whitehead.

Whitehead disrupts the simplistic notion that freedom began for Cora when she worked up the courage to leave the plantation. In fact, the point at which the lines of freedom begin and end is much blurrier. Whitehead reveals a connection between slavery and psychological disturbances and mental illness, a consequence of slavery’s historical trauma that has largely been misrepresented. The author also describes the runaway slaves as refugees, calling to mind our current global refugee crisis.

In a subversive turn, darkness must become Cora’s ally. As she uses an abandoned spur of the Underground Railroad in a furious attempt to escape Ridgeway, she begins to pump the handcar herself, driving into utter darkness, “into northness.”

Whitehead asks readers to consider, “was she traveling through the tunnel or digging it?” In its final essence, this novel is a thank-you letter to those who built the true Underground Railroad.

This book is available at Bud Werner Memorial Library and Off the Beaten Path.

Ella Salvator is receiver at Off the Beaten Path.


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