It was a real one-two punch to read this novel right after reading the powerful collection of essays We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The novel brings to vivid life much of what Coates discussed. It’s a devastating social commentary. Much of its strength, though, comes from not seeming to be so, for at the same time it’s a finely wrought story with a clear simple style, nuanced language, believable characters, and a thrilling plot.
The main character, Cora, is an African-American slave in Georgia in the Deep South, and her life is hell, as is the life of every slave on the plantation on which she lives. Atrocities are commonplace, and Whitehead describes them in gruesome detail, although he does not dwell on them. What makes Cora different is the fact that when she was ten years old, her mother ran and was never caught, while most slave who try to escape are captured, brought back, and tortured to death.
Another slave, Caesar, persuades Cora to run away with him, and they embark on a journey on the famed Underground Railroad. Only the railroad in this novel is not metaphorical; it’s a real system of tunnels with real trains carrying runaways to supposedly safer places in the north. This deviation from historical fact turns the novel into alternate history, a subgenre of science fiction, and it has even won a major science fiction award along with the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and other honors. However, this venture into the realm of fantasy does not rob the story of any of its realism. Cora advances from state to state, and each place she goes has a different way of dealing with free blacks, runaways, and white sympathizers. It’s an excruciatingly difficult journey and a long road to freedom. Reading it, especially, as I said, on the coattails of Coates’s book, makes me question the history on which I was raised and my own moral attitudes about the people with whom I share this country and this world.
But one of the great strengths of this book is that it doesn’t lapse into preaching or self-righteousness. It doesn’t have to. The story speaks for itself. As Cora flees and those who attempt to help her are captured or murdered one after the other, the reader is right there with her in profound empathy. The horrifying thing is that this is not fantasy, not really. Whitehead based his background in research on the accounts of real slaves. It’s almost unbelievable to comprehend that people really endured these things and that other people felt justified in inflicting such horrors upon them.
All in all, it’s one of the best novels I’ve read in recent times. It’s well written, exciting, and also important. It throws you into another world, a world in which you would be tempted to drown without hope. Even a modicum of hope is hard to come by, but Cora keeps going in spite of her travails, learning and growing as she journeys from one bizarre situation to another. She turns into a hero due to her perseverance and grit. That’s the human spirit. We need books like this.