In his new novel “The Underground Railroad,” Colson Whitehead reimagines a sick and savage period in American history and proves once again that fine fiction immersed in historical facts can often be more truthful – and more powerful – than nonfiction.
Almost every schoolchild learns about the Underground Railroad – that secret network of houses, outbuildings and clearings that served as safe houses for slaves fleeing north, particularly in the wake of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act that added the kidnapping of free blacks to the list of terrors facing them. Torture, hangings and other sadistic plantation acts presented as admonition.
But what if the railroad were real – with tracks, tunnels, stations and conductors – mysterious trunk lines that ran on fitful schedules in various states and known only to those who knew the secret codes? It’s an ingenious conception Whitehead adopts for his horrific tale of antebellum racial brutality, and he works the idea to original effect: HIS tale stands out from the literary masterpieces, masterly monographs and movies already part of the slave narrative genre. Typically, objects lend themselves to metaphor. Here, Whitehead takes the underground railroad, a metaphoric construct, and makes it real.
How ironically American – because the railroad in the 19th century embodied the country’s sense of manifest destiny. What more cynical than slaves escaping by railroad, an ideal viewing point, the book’s heroine Cora is told many times, from which to observe the growing nation? But what’s to see underground? What’s to appreciate of a country whose manifest destiny was manifest mostly to whites? As a pitiless slave catcher who dogs Cora tells her, the “American Spirit, the American imperative” DOES include lifting up the lesser races, but “if not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate.” A pointed echo no doubt of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”
The realization of an underground railroad, conceived of and built by blacks, allows Whitehead to emphasize their ingenuity and courage while short circuiting romantic myths that still abound in too many school books: that race was only a Southern problem; that the war between the states was mainly economic, when cotton was king; and that blacks gained freedom with Emancipation. As the daughter of a murdered abolitionist farmer says, years later, living with a Native American sailor on Long Island, “The conflict in Europe was terrible and violent,” but she takes “exception to the name ‘The Great War.’ ‘The Great War’ had always been between the white and the black. It always would be.”
Picked by Oprah for her book club, at the top of President Obama’s vacation reading list and excerpted in The New York Times, “The Underground Railroad” has become a publishing sensation. Deservedly so. Not just for its important subject matter but also for its apt irregular structure and dispassionate style. Both apt for the book’s dark theme. A MacArthur fellow and multiple award-winning writer for his earlier books, Colson Whitehead has created here a suspenseful narrative as well as a moving and provocative exploration of arguably the most incendiary topic in American cultural history.