Labelled by some as historical fiction and others as science fiction, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is a book that does not slot easily into any one category.
I came to it with little understanding of its background, and the ‘underground railroad’ to which it referred, but was swiftly drawn into its narrative, in which a slave girl fights for her freedom.
Set in American just as abolition was beginning to trickle through America, The Underground Railroad is an at times brutal and shocking portrait of the reality that slaves faced on cotton plantations. While the prospect of abolition was one of hope and reinvention, the everyday reality for slaves, and even freed slaves, was terrifying.
The story begins on a plantation, where the young slave, Cora, endures backbreaking work, pitiful living conditions and the constant risk of abuse and humiliation.
When the girl finally makes an escape, she finds herself boarding a literal version of the underground railroad that operated in pre-abolition America.
On a carriage, she is whisked through the dark, never knowing what new horrors she will face when she surfaces. Throughout the book, there is a pervasive sense of foreboding in the reader’s knowledge of the treatment of slaves who have been caught escaping. There is a section where, for a while, Cora is safe, until she discovers who precarious her safety had really been. With each step forward into freedom, comes a thrust back into darkness.
The Underground Railroad is endlessly sad, speaking of the depths of human suffering and evil, yet with a light touch. Amid the pain, there remains a pinpoint of hope for those who escaped the clutches of slave owners, however tiny. There are also other moments of light, when the reader learns the truth about Cora’s mother, or the affection between the slaves
It is a timely reminder of the inhumanity of which we are capable, as we have displayed throughout history. It is a heart wrenching, horrifying, but necessary book.