Cora is on the cusp of womanhood and in the throes of slavery. She is owned by a cliched (yet well drawn by Whitehead) Cruel Crazy Cracker on a plantation in Georgia; utterly alone since her mother escaped, banished to The Hob, a cabin housing slaves that are too sick, old, or crazy (i.e., broken by the system) to work. When another slave, Caesar, approaches her with the plan to escape the South using the Underground Railroad she agrees. Cora takes the reader on her quest, through the states, in boarding houses and attics, learning to read the written word and the nuances of human nature. Throughout, Cora is dogged by the Javert (James from Twilight for the more low-brow of us)-esque slave catcher, Ridgeway. Colson whips the reader through different character narratives and times as well-as it wouldn’t be a Whitehead novel if it wasn’t a bit trippy.
Speculative Fiction, But Cool
Let’s get it out of the way: In The Underground Railroad the…”underground railroad” is in actuality an underground railroad. I’m talking stations and tunnels and real steam locomotives travelling under the soil. Whitehead can be classified as speculative fiction, but not in the large-scale way of the popular, “But what if the Germany won World War One?” way. Instead Colson employs subtle twists in his characters’ worlds, i.e., the importance of elevators in his first novel, The Intuitionist, or, that the Underground Railroad is an actual railroad. Whitehead wisely doesn’t describe this railroad much (would be a bit too Steampunk) but wants you to understand that the idea of a tangible means of conveyance fills his characters with hope. Good Lord, we can’t begrudge them that.
Whitehead never lets us forget that these individuals were property and that classification utterly perverted not only the way they were treated by others but also how they saw themselves. His prose skillfully fleshes out this theme of what considering individuals property does to both the free and the enslaved. While The Underground Railroad‘s core elements are pure Whitehead-lyrical prose alluding to violence, absence of (lazy) character illuminating monologues, an unflinching description of the tenets/effects of institutional racism, and a streak of speculative fiction-he seems to purposely borrow from other classic authors and story telling devices. Cora’s journey itself is reminiscent of Homer’s Odyssey, the slave hunter Ridgeway is Javert or Ahab-esque, Cora and Caesar’s discovery of the free(ish) world and subsequently themselves recalled Tolkien’s hobbits. Whitehead is forcing the reader to confront and accept that the African-American slave deserves just as important a place in our collective consciousness as the persecuted Puritan or ocean-battered Italian on Ellis Island when recalling the people and themes that have shaped the United States.
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