Colson Whitehead's new slavery novel contains misery—but is crisply unsentimental about plantation life

Whitehead’s boldest stroke is to make the historical underground railroad a literal secret railway line
August 15, 2017

The Underground Railroad

by Colson Whitehead (Fleet, £7.99)

In a 2009 article for the New York Times, Colson Whitehead cutely described the kind of novel that he, as an African-American, was expected to write: “The Southern Novel of Black Misery,” where you “slip on your sepia-tinted goggles and investigate the legacy of slavery that still reverberates to this day.” So it was a surprise to many when Whitehead, best known for his social satire of the black middle-class environment in which he grew up and also for writing a zombie novel, produced The Underground Railroad, which follows Cora, an escaped slave, making her way to freedom in 1850s America. A cascade of honours have followed: the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the Oprah interview. It is now a favourite for the Man Booker.

But though Whitehead’s novel contains misery, it is crisply unsentimental about plantation life. Traumatised slaves cheat each other and one even becomes the loyal assistant to a slave-catcher. Whitehead’s boldest stroke is to make the historical underground railroad—the name given to a network of safe houses and routes created by anti-slavery activists—a literal secret railway line. Each state the track runs through is a quasi-mythical construction representing one way the US has approached race-relations: the slaving state, the separatist state, the superficially integrated state. So as well as a gripping adventure story with hints of the recent films Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave—the slave-catcher Ridgeway is a terrifying creation who you can easily imagine being played by Michael Fassbender—this is also a novel of ideas.

In its most moving scene Cora enters a library and is astonished to see ex-slaves’ stories written down in books. Whitehead, in his own non-sepia tinted fashion, does Cora the same justice.