Author Colson Whitehead pic © Madeline Whitehead

2017 Man Booker Review: The Underground Railroad

1st September 2017

By Lisa Botwright

They say that the psychopaths of a stable society are the heroes of a more violent age. In this stunningly powerful novel about slavery in the American south, the psychopaths are the cream of society. The more brutal the rich and powerful landowners are to their slaves, the harder their captive labourers will work, creating ever more riches and power. This disgusting cycle of greed is summed up succinctly by Nora, a plantation slave and the hero of the story: ’Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.’

Her owners, James and Terrance Randall, are known for their predilection for depravity, even beyond the cruelty meted out by their contemporaries as commonplace. When one of their other slaves runs away, his re-capture is an opportunity for revelry. ‘Swell ladies and gentlemen’ are invited to dine on the lawn as Big Anthony is ‘whipped for the duration of the meal… and they ate slow.’ On the third day, he’s doused with oil and roasted alive, although we’re spared his screams as his mouth has been sewn up.

‘The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters. But the ideas they held up for themselves, they denied others,’ reflects an angry and bitter Cora. She and fellow slave Caesar, unwilling to ‘witness the abuse of their brethren as moral instruction’ any longer, make a pact to run away, even as the smell of their friend’s burning flesh lingers as a horrifying reminder of what will happen to them if they’re caught.

They escape at night, hoping to head north to freedom. The inspiration for the novel is the network of volunteers, funded by northern abolitionists, who risked their lives to help runaway slaves; and Colson Whitehead has reimagined this historic network – the Underground Railroad – as a physical reality, a real railroad that takes Caesar and Cora from station to station, state to state, in pursuit of freedom. But will their freedom remain illusory?

Their perilous journey exposes them to incessant manifestations of malice and racism – from South Carolina’s seemingly benevolent approach to ‘the negro problem’, masking a dark programme of forced sterilisation, to the sickening irony of North Carolina’s ‘freedom trail’, where the corpses strung from trees ‘went on for ever it seemed, in every direction’. Not just black corpses, either – but also any white people who dared to help or harbour slaves.

The landscape of such intense human suffering makes for an upsetting and deeply uncomfortable read; yet it’s also one of the most addictive and engrossing books I‘ve ever read. The energy of Whitehead’s writing is magnificent and his characters are so fully drawn they transcend any tempting cartoonish clichés of good and evil.

The twentieth century American thinker, George Santayana, said that ‘those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it’, and this is such an important book to read to understand the terrible consequences of racism and imperialism. But the most uncomfortable feeling the book prompted in me is my own fear of apathy. It’s easy to shake my head in horror and condemnation, but would I have risked my life to help the slaves? The bravery of those few individuals who worked the railroad is the chink of sunlight that illuminates a very dark tale.

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