'The Underground Railroad', by Colson Whitehead - Review

By Patrikarakos, David | The Spectator, October 15, 2016 | Go to article overview

'The Underground Railroad', by Colson Whitehead - Review


Patrikarakos, David, The Spectator


It is difficult to write well about slavery. As with the Holocaust, the subject's horrific nature lends itself too easily to mawkishness. This tendency is one that Colson White-head consummately avoids in this impressive novel.

The Underground Railroad, set before the American civil war, tells the story of Cora, a young slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, and her escape with a fellow slave, Caesar, via the Underground Railroad, a secret network of routes and activists that enabled slaves to reach the free states of America's north. It tells it beautifully. The book mixes genres to sublime effect: a straight parable of good versus evil that sees Ridgeway the relentless (and remorseless) slave catcher face off against Cora, it is also a darkly picaresque work, as our heroine encounters various mishaps, moments of genuine terror and moments of (often misplaced) hope as she flees, state by state, towards freedom. Here is a bleak Tom Jones for the 21st century.

But above all, it is a forensic examination of the horrors of slavery. The narrative opens with Cora's grandmother, Ajarry, captured in Africa and sold. And then sold, and sold. The first time she wasn't sure how much she cost, being part of a 'bulk purchase' where 'able-bodied men and childbearing women fetched more than juveniles, making an individual accounting difficult.' Further down the line, Ajarry becomes 'another asset liquidated by order of the magistrate' in 'a hasty exchange, a drop in price occasioned by the realities of the local market', before spending 'three months as the property of a Welshman, who eventually lost her, three other slaves, and two hogs in a game of whist'. …

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