by Colson Whitehead
The Underground Railroad is the story of 15-year-old Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. The book has obtained many awards, in particular the Pulitzer Prize.
Life on the plantation is described in very graphic terms and we all agreed that the descriptions of the cruelty that slaves endured at the hands of their owners surpassed what most of us imagined. Cora escapes from the plantation and the book goes on to relate what happens to her afterwards. In writing about the escape, the author introduces an element of magical realism, transforming the underground network of safe houses and hiding places for escaping slaves into an actual railroad, with stations and train drivers. As the story continues, other elements of magical realism are woven into it, but so subtly that it is sometimes difficult to separate them from the real world in which Cora lives. We learn about all the enormous obstacles that escaping slaves faced, including being pursued by slave catchers, who earned their living by tracking down escaped slaves and returning them to their owners.
Many of us at first were taken in by the descriptions of the underground stations that were so vivid, it took us a while to realize that they were invented. However, the network of safe houses and the messaging system to help escaping slaves was definitely a reality and was called the Underground Railroad.
It was generally agreed that the presentation of life on the plantations and the system of slavery were very well depicted. Whitehead had done an extensive amount of research about the period, including reading the testimony recorded by slaves and published during the 1930’s. To most readers, this question is largely unknown, even in the U.S., where, according to the author, very little is taught about slavery.
In general, most of us felt that this was definitely a worthwhile book, even if some of the scenes of the cruelty the slaves experienced were difficult to read.
Additional comments by Anne Van Calster
It is worth noting :
The importance of education . Some slaves made it off the plantation because of a rare gift among black people : they could read.
Ceasar could read the stars ( useful when treading uncharted territory) as well as letters.
For Cora, locked in an attic, reading an Almanach was like travelling round the globe : magical.
The symbolism of building the underground railroad to reach freedom. « Just as the surveyors Lewis and Clark explored and mapped the American wilderness », for escaping slaves « it comes to charting a path through the wilderness when the night is dark and full of treacherous footing.
Slavery has been abolished but we are left with no illusions as to the american society nowadays :
« If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through and you will find the true face of America. »
The shock of words :
« Black hands built the « White House. »
Cotton required its fuel of African bodies »
Out in the world, the wicked escaped comeuppance and the decent stood in their stead at the wipping tree »
« The slave trade : breathing capital, profit made flesh »
Slavery is still a fact today . But this book conveys a message of hope :
« If the North had eliminated slavery, one day, the abominable institution would fall everywhere. The Negro’s story may have started in this country with degradation, but triumph and prosperity would be his one day. »