I know I’m late to this party. People have been talking about Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad for months, and it just won the Pulitzer. Even my husband has read the book, and he rarely reads fiction. But better late than never. Whitehead’s sixth novel is now one of my all-time top ten, right up with there other masterpieces like The Handmaid’s Tale, Station Eleven, and 1984.
This may be because The Underground Railroad explores so powerfully a misunderstanding I had as a child. It began with a set of playing cards my mother gave me one holiday featuring famous American women — Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Dolly Madison, and my favorite, Harriet Tubman.
Tubman, so plain in feature and dress, was a spy, an abolitionist, a champion of women’s and human rights. She looked different from the other women in the deck, and for reasons I didn’t understand, I loved her immediately. I imagined her running a station of the secret railroad coursing beneath the surface of the earth to carry slaves to freedom. I didn’t stop to think that the railroad wasn’t real.
In his book, Whitehead explores this fantasy of a magical railroad to freedom through the story of a runaway slave, Cora. After escaping her sadistic master in Georgia, Cora discovers a network of subterranean train tracks leading up from slavery and into various cities on the way to the free north. Each time she emerges from an underground station into a different southern state, she experiences a different racial dystopia with completely different laws and perils. But Cora is a quick study who will use whatever means necessary to survive.
She is Harriet Tubman; she is Anne Frank; she is Wonder Woman. She is everyone who ever ran from a bad life in search of a better one. She is one of the lucky few to make it all the way to freedom, all the way home. And as she makes her way “into northness,” she learns that the railroad doesn’t depend on station masters or trains at all. It is one’s own creation, a figment of one’s imagination, made real by hope and perseverance and luck.
The Underground Railroad reveals the many tough truths and mysteries of American slavery. Run, don’t walk, to catch a ride on this novel.