The first sentence of Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad starts the plot. The second sentence opens a digression into backstory that takes up the whole first chapter. Most of the second chapter is a digression as well. Whitehead does this often throughout the book. He excels at painting portraits of characters and their histories. Everyone is a supporting player in the fabric of the story, and every thread contributes to this tapestry picture of a nation on the eve of a great and bloody change.
Every picture needs someone to view it, though, and our eyes for the novel belong to Cora, a third-generation slave on the Randall plantation in Georgia. She is defiant and headstrong, her way of surviving the harsh realities of oppression. When a fellow slave named Caesar approaches her with a plan to escape to the North, she is at first reluctant but ultimately agrees to join the foolhardy bid for freedom. Caesar has a contact with the Underground Railroad — which, in a touch of magical realism, is a literal subway train line complete with stations and locomotives. “If you want to see what this nation is all about,” someone says as they climb aboard, “you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.”
There is nothing outside their boxcar but total darkness.
Time is ambiguous in the novel on multiple levels. No year is ever indicated, except only that it must take place before the Civil War. In addition, time jumps between the titled parts lend fluidity to our sense of what’s going on. When we reach South Carolina, we at first believe a new character has joined the story, only to learn that it is Cora herself wearing a false name as a disguise. This kind of temporary dislocation is used to effectively put us off our ease, lets us share Cora’s lack of roots or settled place. We are constantly untethered and sliding into whatever might come next. It also helps us turn the pages quicker.
As the journey progresses deeper into the North, the North itself begins to sound even more mythical than it did on the plantation. Everywhere there are signs that point to an uncomfortable truth: escaped slaves are not necessarily out of danger just because they’re in Boston or New York. Cora herself becomes a cynic, one who carefully tallies her sorrows while slowly losing track of hope; she escaped the plantation but will she ever escape slavery and the society that created it? A wagon ride through a part of Tennessee pitted and ruined by forest fire and plague provokes a Job-like meditation on justice:
Initially she assigned the devastation of Tennessee — the blaze and the disease — to justice. The whites got what they deserved. For enslaving her people, for massacring another race, for stealing the very land itself. Let them burn by flame or fever, let the destruction started here rove acre by acre until the dead have been avenged. But if people received their just portion of misfortune, what had she done to bring her troubles on herself?…Running away was a transgression so large that the punishment enveloped every generous soul on her brief tour of freedom.
Bouncing on the wagon springs, she smelled the damp earth and the heaving trees. Why had this field escaped while another burned five miles back? Plantation justice was mean and constant, but the world was indiscriminate. Out in the world, the wicked escaped comeuppance and the decent stood in their stead at the whipping tree. Tennessee’s disasters were the fruit of indifferent nature, without connection to the crimes of the homesteaders. To how the Cherokee had lived their lives.
Just a spark that got away.
No chains fastened Cora’s misfortunes to her character or actions. Her skin was black and this was how the world treated black people. No more, no less…If Tennessee had a temperament, it took after the dark personality of the world, with a taste for arbitrary punishment. No one was spared, regardless of the shape of their dreams or the color of their skin.
It is little wonder that she’s so cynical after reading what she goes through, after suffering through it with her. We always reach the next stop on the railroad only to be hurried along by yet another sudden outbreak of terror. Our appearance of safety and freedom tends to be proved merely illusion, as we learn that not all chains are made of iron and not all friends are made of strong steel.
The story, like the journey, doesn’t so much end as stop. Cora runs from her vicious master with a great deal of drive but little sense of destination, and so do we. The last few pages are true to the rest of the book; a sense of becoming yet again untethered, yet again being pushed by an inexorable force in a direction defined only by the narrow lines of a railway. Like the question of race, of civil rights, of America itself, this odyssey by train doesn’t lead to specific answers. Instead it is neverending and constant, chugging along like a locomotive on its tracks, always on the run towards whatever future awaits.