If you’re doing this whole “reading” thing right, there should ideally be a shortlist of books that changed your mind/blew your mind/expanded your mind, whether on specific subjects or just in general. They don’t have to be the greatest books ever written, or even particularly literary or influential (though it’s always nice if they are). They’re just the ones you read in the right place at the right time in your life, or in history. They’re the ones you consciously or unconsciously absorbed into your worldview. A shortlist book is one you finish and then think about, constantly at first and then on and off for years, or even decades, afterwards.
My shortlist for books about racism, and specifically slavery, is particularly short, mostly because I’m an asshole who spent at least 50% of her formative years reading Stephen King and Sookie Stackhouse novels (no regrets though, no regrets). Many of the books on that list I’ve only read in the past few years—The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Homegoing, Americanah—and this month I added a new one: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.
TUR centers on Cora, whose mother runs away from the plantation where they are enslaved when Cora herself is only 11. With the help of a friend, Cora eventually stages her own escape, absconding for (theoretically) greener pastures via the underground railroad, which in Whitehead’s novel is a literal railroad, cobbled together and managed by former slaves and secretive abolitionists. Cora’s journey takes her through a handful of states with a variety of… approaches toward slavery, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to concede that few of those experiences prove uplifting (see: history).
Although Cora is the heart and soul of Whitehead’s novel, he has also created an excellent supporting cast: There’s Caesar, the soft-spoken fellow slave who pushes Cora to run away with him. Lovey, the boisterous young slave who secretly follows them. Ridgeway, a hulking and ruthless slave catcher with a personal vendetta against Cora and her mother. Martin and Ethel Wells, ambivalent guardians of a shuttering stop on the railroad. And others. In the spirit of so many literary journeys (Gulliver’s Travels chief among them) it is these people and their perspectives that inform Cora’s coming of age, as much as the places in which she finds herself. (Which isn’t to say that emerging from a lightless tunnel into an unknown slave state isn’t a unique brand of horrific suspense: The reader of The Underground Railroad, like Cora, is always waiting for the other shoe to drop.)
When it comes to the old emotional tote bag, empathy for the slave experience should be pretty easy to muster (to say nothing of existential guilt and an underlying loss of faith in humanity). It is still, no matter how much I read or watch about it, a near-unfathomable reality to me, and some of the most powerful depictions of that experience have had to do with the cruel and exacting nature of life on a plantation. Whitehead, too, outlines the institutionalized hopelessness of serving a mercurial and cruel master, of being considered and treated like property. But I think his novel has an even greater impact by imagining a life after the planation, a “free” life that is in actuality an indefinite state of anxiety and fear.
Despite all this, ironically even, The Underground Railroad is lovely to read. Whitehead has a gift for characters, for scene-setting, and for pacing that makes this as successful a novel as it is a successful book. It’s powerful and heart-wrenching, but also accessible and compelling—uncomfortably, a page-turner. TUR also provokes a great deal of thought, not just about history and human compassion and moral objectivity, but about the logistics of this hypothetical railroad, and the impetus for Whitehead’s using it as a narrative twist.
My personal theory? Because the railroad is haphazard—a passenger never knows where, geographically speaking, they are headed next—it creates a Quantum Leap-like narrative structure. Cora, as the main character, and us as the reader, are repeatedly discovering anew the horrors of a country dependent on (and in many cases gleeful about) slavery. Whatever hope for stability might emerge from a known destination is tainted by dread.
That’s certainly no accident, and it’s a part of the slave experience that resonated with me, or at least really resonated with me, for the first time in reading this book. A book you really do have to read. But also a book you’ll want to.
TITLE: The Underground Railroad
AUTHOR: Colson Whitehead
PAGES: 320 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: The Intuitionist, Zone One
SORTA LIKE: Homegoing meets Underground Airlines
FIRST LINE: “The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.”