Escaping from slavery was a daunting proposition. The escaped slave would have to leave a plantation without alerting overseers or tattletales, brave the elements with little in the way of supplies, meet up with people to provide assistance without giving himself away, and finally find a way to travel to friendlier territories. The participants in the escape had to keep absolute secrecy, with both slaves and abolitionists risking death at any misstep. Even after making it to the safety of a free state, the former slave could be captured and returned to the plantation and the grim consequences of flight at any time, all sanctioned by law.
The “underground railroad” that made these escapes possible was a marvel of human ingenuity, bravery, and dedication to principle. It also required a tremendous leap of faith from the escapee. Often there was no way to know what became of those who escaped before. Those who left were driven by optimism or naiveté or both. With others, the leap was more like jumping from a burning building; not really a choice at all.
In The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead explores many facets of these complex interactions. The focus of the story is on Cora and her escape, but we also get glimpses from many other perspectives, from those who participated to those left behind, and even the views of a slave catcher. The brutal and often heartbreaking story is told with a straightforward lack of sentimentality that is more powerful and affecting for its spareness.
This seemingly candid approach disguises other layers. There is allegory and metaphor so deftly woven into the narrative that it is hard to tease out. And then of course there is the underground railroad itself. In Whitehead’s vision, it is a literal underground railroad, rendering the metaphor into reality. This is right somehow, since in a kind of converse logic, the underground railroad of history had a power in the very idea of it. The vision it represented was as important as its reality, making the leap into the unknown possible.
A copy of this book for review was provided by Random House/NetGalley. Expected publication September 13, 2016.