Her mother ran away when Cora was still a little girl, leaving her to fend for herself on the Randall plantation. After a few years had toughened her, Caesar asked her to escape with him on the Underground Railroad. At first, Cora said no, but when she shielded a little boy from a beating, and was beaten and whipped as a punishment, they waited for an opportunity to flee. It was not that simple, though. Even slaves who escaped their masters could not walk freely in the United States, and each destination brought new horrors and unimagined dangers.
Whitehead portrays the Underground Railroad as an actual railway with stations in cellars and caverns, and rails that run under our feet for thousands of miles. His narrative spans Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Indiana, and each state highlights a different facet of the huge, tentacled evil of slavery. The scene in Georgia is the one that most of us picture: a large plantation with slave cabins and cotton fields. However, as she travels, Cora sees medical experimentation, forced sterilization, lynchings, and relentless pursuit by slave catchers. White people who shelter runaways or even speak about abolition are in mortal danger, as well. As escaped slaves and free blacks move north, those towns grumble about the incoming wave of blacks, and begin to segregate their businesses and cooperate with the slave hunters. Cora finds herself in a never-ending struggle to break free.
The Underground Railroad has recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I have always considered the Pulitzer and the National Book Award to be the most dependable prizes for real readers. Except for Hilary Mantel’s novels, the Booker Prize seems to go to the “Most Esoteric” works of literature, and the Nobel Prize winners can be equally obscure. Others are narrow in focus, such as the Edgar and the Hugo. However, starting with Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (General Nonfiction, 1975), I have read through many Pulitzer Prize winners with great appreciation, and Whitehead’s latest is no exception. It is by turns tragic, hopeful, breathless, horrifying, and beautiful, and reading it should disabuse anyone of the belief that legality and morality are synonymous. Any law that makes it legal for one human being to hold the power of life and death over another human being warps our society so that even those who do not participate, but only make the laws or vote for them, perhaps those who approve of the laws or help to enforce them, or even perhaps those who do or say nothing to fight for those who are weak and perishing are complicit in the same evil.
Very highly recommended.
Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.