Colson Whitehead‘s book is a heart-wrenching, brutal story that follows Cora’s escape from a murderous plantation in Georgia that’s set in an alternative universe where The Underground Railroad is an actual subway run by former slaves and white sympathizers, each of whom are hunted by regulators.
I went into the book knowing little about it — save for all the recommendations I’d been given — and so it took me a moment to orient myself to the universe of the book’s alternative history, which is subtle. Once I got past questioning what I thought I knew (“Wait, The Underground Railroad didn’t have tunnels, right?), I settled into Whitehead’s unrelenting narrative. (And maybe that’s what the story needed: like science fiction taking on the failings of humans, we can distance ourselves from our culpability.)
Cora, the main character, doesn’t experience moments of joy or serenity so much as periods in which the coming brutality hasn’t quite reached her yet. Her story isn’t like waves approaching the shore, crests and troughs in action. Instead, she lives in the troughs constantly waiting for the crest to crash down upon her. There is never a time when, as a reader, I thought: “This is where it turns for her.”
Because even in the alternative history, The Underground Railroad was an escape valve for such a small number of people that even those who survived its road were left scarred by the horrors they had to endure. There are no survivors in The Underground Railroad. There are only the ghosts in the shells who come out the other side.
A few days removed from finishing the story, I’m still haunted by some of the scenes Colson painted. And I’m not sure they’ll fade anytime soon.
The Underground Railroad isn’t an easy book to read. You probably won’t blow through it on a beach. But the end is worth the struggle.