I have a tremendous aversion to reading about torture. I can’t stand slasher flicks or brutality in movies either, particularly if it’s detailed. So I sweated and squirmed through the beginning of Colson Whitehead’s incredible new novel, The Underground Railroad, in which runaway slaves from an 1820s Georgia plantation are recaptured and subjected to unfathomably brutal, disgusting punishments. While I’d love to believe not every pre-civil-war plantation owner was a full-on sadistic psychopath, I have to wonder if the overseers—those hired to manage the enslaved men and women most directly—hadn’t self-selected for the job precisely because they were men capable of unflinching cruelty. Think about it: how do you completely dominate people who outnumber you?
Answer: you terrorize them.
It’s a luxury to sit here feeling faint at the thought of torture, I know. Luckily for me, nobody is enslaving me or hacking off my body parts or roasting me alive. I live in a free society where my delicate sensibilities can be soothed by flicking away the book or turning off the movie. But I’m uncomfortably aware that’s exactly why I should read this book; all good storytellers transcend reality and take us to another place, but some of them also transform us for good. This book, I promise you, will stick with you and turn you into a different person than you were before you read it.
Cora has no intention of running. She’s seen firsthand the atrocities visited upon slaves who were caught fleeing—and with the exception of one person, Cora’s mother, who’d abandoned her daughter years before—no one there has ever been successful in evading the bounty hunters tracking them. When Caesar, a newcomer from Virginia, tells Cora about the fabled Underground Railroad, she’s initially resistant. But life on the plantation is a hell beyond description. Cora is strong and brave; soon she decides to risk the horror of recapture for the only chance she’ll ever have at freedom. With a tagalong—Cora’s friend Lovey—the three of them bolt under cover of darkness, making their way toward the home of a sympathetic white man thirty miles away.
Two of them escape. The third does not—Lovey is dragged away by two men, screaming in terror at her fate. To their amazement, Cora and Caesar find that not only does the Underground Railroad exist, but it is real: a literal railroad, carved out in subterranean tunnels beneath the red Georgia clay.
They are transported first to South Carolina, where they discover astonishing new lives waiting for them. Cora revels, for the first time ever, in the startling absence of misery. She finds employment, first as a nanny, and later as a living museum exhibit, demonstrating a whitewashed tableau of slave life to roiling crowds of the curious on the other side of the glass. Just when she starts to relax into her improved existence, the city drops its serene mask long enough for her to catch a glimpse of the carefully impersonal hostility beneath: not everything is as it seems here. And even worse, Ridgeway, the infamous slave catcher, lurks nearby, intent on returning Caesar and Cora to their prior owner. She flees again.
With each successive city and state, Whitehead peels back the veneer of civilization we think we possess, exposing the rot underneath. But he also shines a light on the myriad of characteristics people exhibit when exposed to evil, both insidious and overt. There’s bravery and indifference and nobility. There’s kindness and there’s savagery, in every race. There’s treachery. There’s love beyond reckoning.
The writing is beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. I was lucky enough to hear Colson speak about writing it, and I wish I'd taken notes. His brain must be a magnificent place. The book is worth reading for the writing alone, but even more so for the intricacy of the plot and the brilliant, shattering, mind-blowing swirl of emotions you’ll endure. This book makes you think, it makes you wonder, it makes you hope.
It makes you wish to be a better person and for the world to be a better place.
Buy The Underground Railroad HERE
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