'The Underground Railroad' Tells a Disturbingly Real Story of Slavery

By Romeo, Nick | The Christian Science Monitor, August 9, 2016 | Go to article overview

'The Underground Railroad' Tells a Disturbingly Real Story of Slavery


Romeo, Nick, The Christian Science Monitor


Novelist Colson Whitehead's 2011 "Zone One" was essentially required to contain gruesome scenes of blood and carnage. The book was a literary zombie novel, descended in part from dozens of gore- splattered zombie movies that make human dismemberment an almost cheerful affair. The novel was also a serious meditation on human nature composed in sentences of unerring beauty. Some critics were endlessly astonished by this juxtaposition of elements, but Whitehead showed that a literary zombie novel was no contradiction.

While the violence of "Zone One" was more than spectacle, it had a certain moral weightlessness derived from the zombie genre. His new novel, The Underground Railroad, also has passages of astounding physical violence, yet they are more deeply disturbing than any bloodshed in his previous book. Whitehead depicts the perversions and horrors of slavery in 19th-century America through the story of the multiple escape attempts of a woman named Cora. It's not inevitable that this subject matter inspire serious treatment - Quentin Tarantino's 2012 movie "Django Unchained" trivialized the suffering of slaves with its leering enjoyment of graphic torture. But Whitehead neither disguises nor delights in the ubiquity of extreme violence, presenting it as an inescapable daily reality, a monstrous fact of life become so familiar that "travesties ... were a kind of weather."

Cora is both a child and grandchild of slaves, and while the story touches briefly on the original abduction of her grandmother from Africa, episodes from Cora's life on a Georgia plantation form the primary opening narrative. Her mother attempts to escape when she is only 10 or 11 - ages are an approximate matter for slaves on the plantation - leaving Cora a "stray." She endures rape, whippings, beatings, and the ceaseless psychological torment of enslavement before attempting an escape of her own while still only a teenager.

Most of the novel has firm roots in historical reality. Different sections of the narrative are interrupted by the brief transcripts of actual 19th-century advertisements posted by the owners of runaway slaves. These are astonishing in their cruelty and self- delusion, and they make clear that slave owners saw slaves as tools and property. One ad complains that a slave ran away "without provocation," as if the owner were genuinely surprised that someone might object to being a slave. …

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