Review: ‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead

By Katie Harling-Challis

My Christmas Day was rather quiet this year, just my mom and I, and so it was the perfect time to read a book in a day, which is just what I did. Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad may not be the most seasonal of reads, and it certainly isn’t a light novel, but it is one powerful book.

It explores the famous underground railroad of the USA, with a twist: this one actually is underground, and it has actual, working trains. Apart from that change, the world Whitehead depicts matches with ours, however difficult this world may be to face. It is nineteenth century America, pre-civil war, in all its horrors. Inspired by the striking and true slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, Whitehead explores the complex, horrific, and complicated world that is America and its history.

For this is a fiction facing facts, facts of American history and the horrors of humanity, as well as the dreams and the hopes. Yet in being a fictional novel, the idea of history is questioned. Can we ever know the true history of America? If we can, could we ever face all of its horrors? What really is the true history of America?

In some ways, this novel is actually more fitting to the Christmas season than some may think. For in the many carol service sermons that I have listened to this year, one thing has been made clear: Christmas is not all about ideals and perfectness. It is also about the lowly, the suffering, the darkness of the world that we are in, and it is about celebrating how we can find the light in the darkness. For Cora in The Underground Railroad, that light is found by descending into the depths of the earth, below American soil. She enters into the railroad tunnels underground in search of a light, a hope, in the darkness. America is a country whose history is tied up in the treatment of the land, and the people who have lived and worked on it. To face the truth of American history, one must dig deep into that soil and face the truth of those horrors, if we are ever to find a more hopeful possible future.

This is a novel focussing on the individuals while facing the larger concepts of history. It is a novel that works on both the literal and the figurative levels, and that ambiguity is akin to what we find in history. Because history, though we like to think it otherwise, is not made up of clear cut facts. Our histories are always narratives, with particular tones and focusses. The Underground Railroad is just one exploration of that, and an attempt to look at the true face of America. On their first ride on the Underground Railroad, Cora and Caesar are told by Lumbly, the station master, ‘If you want to see what this nation is all about, I always say, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.’ By the end of the novel, Cora starts realising that all you ever see is the darkness outside. But while she cannot see the face of America, ‘she felt it, moved through its heart.’ Whitehead’s latest work leads us through the dark heart of America, and just as all powerful novels do, makes us feel, rather than see, the true workings of history.

Images: Faye Chua, little, brown

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