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… Continue reading