By the time this book was published in the UK it had built up quite an anticipation. My copy came with a promotional bookmark that listed quotes from Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, the New York Times. It was an Oprah Book Club Pick and a NYT bestseller. Quite a lot to live up to, but for the most part I felt this novel lived up to those high expectations.
Cora is a slave on the Randall cotton plantation in Georgia. She has been an outcast, even among her fellow slaves, ever since her mother escaped years before. Caesar has recently arrived at the plantation, bought after his previous owner, an elderly woman, died. Used to an easier life, he struggles with the brutality of the Randalls. When he hears about her mother’s escape he sees Cora as a good luck charm and convinces her to run away with him and find the Underground Railroad.
Whitehead imagines the railroad as a real physical rail system, run by abolitionist station masters who hide station stops beneath their barns and houses, or make trips to hidden location to pick up passengers. Each stop offers a different experience and different dangers to Cora as she travels through. She meets many friends along the way, along with her main foe, a slave catcher named Ridgeway. He has his own vendetta against Cora – her mother Mabel evaded his capture years before, the only slave to do so, and he is determined to take his revenge.
The structure of the book is that inbetween Cora’s travels we have short chapters focusing in on various other characters that we encounter along the way. The book begins with this, introducing us to Ajarry, Cora’s grandmother, and her capture and transportation by boat on the slave triangle that ran between Britain, the African continent and across to the Americas. Unlike many novels on slavery, Whitehead has no drawn out scenes of torture, using matter of fact prose to outline the evil treatment that is used on the slaves, and those who try to help them. He leaves it to the reader to imagine the horror rather than spelling it out, and this is an effective method.
One criticism I have of the novel is the characterisation. Even by the end of the book I didn’t feel that I knew Cora well. I knew various things that happened to her both before the reader meets her and during her journey, but I found her a bit aloof. We got her thoughts on what she saw and experienced in the moment, but not much else. I suppose this was an illustration of her psyche after the traumas she’d been through, but she was lacking a little in personality. I had the same issue with Caesar, especially as he seemed to only appear to serve a purpose. Ridgeway, the intrepid slave catcher, was probably the best drawn of the main characters. We saw his pride dented by failing to catch Mabel, his determination not to let her daughter thwart him, his twisted humour at using a more psychological torture against Cora. I just wanted to care about her a little more.
This is a bold novel, creating something close to fantasy but rooted in the horror of the American deep south pre-Civil War. It is both entertaining as well as thought-provoking, and it is new, offering something different to those other great novels set in the era. There is so much to take in, each state offering a different, impeccably drawn landscape with new pitfalls and promises. It is worthy of its many accolades.