From where I live, I can see the Ohio River from my daughter’s third-floor bedroom. Tucked below the hill overlooking the river a train track runs, but I can’t see it. On occasion I can hear the freight train, but for all intents and purposes it is a sort of underground railroad from my line of vision. This was the perfect perch for me to travel through Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad: A Novel.
Already landing on The New York Times bestsellers list and chosen for Oprah’s Book Club, the book tells the adventurous tale of the protagonist Cora and her fellow adventurer Caesar, who are determined to escape the horrors of slavery. It offers contemporary readers a powerful meditation on a history we all share.
The nineteenth century “Underground Railroad” traces its naming to a slave who made a break for the free state of Ohio by swimming across the Ohio River, his escape so secretive that it was said he "must have gone off on an underground road." The name stuck, and the legend of the Underground Railroad was born. Over the following decades, the freedom train became a part of the national consciousness.
In this powerful novel, Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors of black life in pre-Civil War America. But his Underground Railroad carries the book’s characters and readers in fantastical directions. “The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath,” the book avers.
The central metaphor of Whitehead’s novel is the Underground Railroad he imagines, a secret network of passageways and safe houses used to smuggle slaves north, an actual railroad built underground, stretching miles in either direction. Through a safe house’s trap door, the slaves reach a real railroad with locomotives, boxcars, and conductors. “Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel,” Whitehead writes, “pinned into the dirt by wooden crossties. The steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus.”
The trains operate on no particular schedule and take their riders though different states and to often unknown destinations. But they traffic in deliverance for those wanting to flee the misery and violence of slavery. Exodus imagery is evident as the trains provide passage for Cora and Caesar, even if it’s into an uncertain future. A character observes that slavery produced “scars [that] will never fade,” and today’s Black Lives Matter movement offers testimony to the chronic pain that still haunts America. (Doubleday)