Much has been made about the train in The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, specifically that it’s an actual train and not a metaphorical one that people ride to escape slavery. Because of all this commentary, I thought, going into the book, that Cora, the escaped slave protagonist of the novel, would spend more time riding the rails than she actually does.. Cora rides the train a few times, but stops for long spells between stations, in different states, and experiences different states of freedom and enslavement.
The most fantastic thing about the train is its unpredictability. It doesn’t follow a regular schedule, and the riders can never be sure where they will arrive next. Each stop is in a different state, and each state has its own treatment of the slave. If the plantation life that Cora flees is one that we reader might recognize as familiar– slave cabins, deprivation, field work, mercurial and cruel masters — each stop on Cora’s journey takes us into less familiar literary narratives about slavery and racial injustice. At one stop, Cora is seemingly treated as a respected member of society, until she realizes that blacks are the subjects of a systematic sterility program. At another stop, blacks are being lynched out of existence and so she is hidden in the false ceiling of an attic for months (shades of Anne Frank?). At another stop, she is given a job (a job!) working in a museum, but it turns out she is merely a live figure in a diorama about slave life. The white people watch her from outside the glass like an animal in a cage. It’s just weird and disturbing. All the while, Cora is being chased by a slave catcher named Ridgeway, who eventually does catch up with her. But I won’t tell anymore…
This is what Cora (and Caesar, he fellow escapee) see at the first station:
The stairs led onto a small platform. The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light-colored stones in an alternating pattern. The sheer industry that had made such a project possible. Cora and Caesar noticed the rails. Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel, pinned into the dirt by wooden cross-ties. The steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus. Someone had been thoughtful enough to arrange a small bench on the platform. Cora felt dizzy and sat down.
Caesar could barely speak. “How far does the tunnel extend?”
Lumbly shrugged. “Far enough for you.”
“It must have taken years.”
“More than you know. Solving the problem of ventilation took a bit o f time.”
“Who built it?”
“Who builds anything in this country?”
Cora saw that Lumbly relished their astonishment. This was not his first performance.
Caesar said, “But how?”
“With their hands, how else?”
Who builds anything in this country indeed. We readers are reminded of the amazing prosperity and achievements built by the hands of slaves — and I think it is safe to add: people of color and immigrants, in general. When I read that passage I was reminded of Michelle Obama who I heard remark on several occasions how humbled she was to live in the White House, a house a built by slaves.
I thought Whitehead did a wonderful job imagining Cora’s inner world and particularly the shell of distrust she keeps towards both blacks and whites. While the latter is not surprising, the former was. But Cora’s relationships with other black people, at least in the beginning, are so fractured — her mother escapes and abandons her, other slaves are petty and desperate, or sold away; and male slaves rape just as brutally as white masters do. Later in the novel she will see blacks in roles and relationships that she couldn’t have imagined. And at least we, the readers, learn what happens to her mother.
Overall, I found this book fascinating and heartbreaking. Now I need to read Marlon James’s Book of the Night Women.