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America, the Beautiful?

A review of Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad

Published on:
February 8, 2017
Read time:
5 min.
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When I was a child learning about the Underground Railroad I was shocked to discover that the railroad was, in fact, not underground. Rather it was a series of safe houses and trails for slaves to escape into freedom in the North. 

In Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award winner and most recent novel, The Underground Railroad, he brings the name “the Underground Railroad” into reality. 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Cover design by Oliver Munday.

The Underground Railroad tells the story of two runaway slaves—Cora and Caesar. While the story is mainly about Cora and what she has to go through, Caesar provides much of the impetus behind the actions Cora takes and the decisions that she makes. The cover of the book is a perfect summary of the book as the railroad takes them all over the South in what seems like taking two steps forward and three steps back. They are hunted by brutes and mercenaries and find cities of refuge, yet they can never seem to escape from the dark cloud that creeps over America.

The irony of Colson Whitehead bringing to life the “underground” part of the railroad is aortic in this novel and in how Whitehead tells the story. And, as a side note, it is difficult to shine as a writer in capturing something so harsh and grotesque. And while the Whitehead’s writing is perfect in every sense of the term, he seems reluctant to show off his “writing skills” in this novel, as it is, probably, not the place to show off. Rather, he simply moves out of the way and writes a story that you can feel, one that you don’t even realize there is a writer behind because of how enmeshed you get in the story.

Designers often talk about how good design is invisible in a sense that you rarely ever realize it but simply intuitively know it. But good writing is often invisible too. What I mean by this is that really good writers know when to get out of the way and just write a story. Writers like David Foster Wallace or Martin Amis—who no doubt are great writers—have a tendency to showboat. If you read one of their stories you can see the writer behind it raising their hand and trying to let the crowd know how cool or good they are.

They are hunted by brutes and mercenaries and find cities of refuge, yet they can never seem to escape from the dark cloud that creeps over America.
Joanthan Minnema

Better storytellers and better writers get out of the way and let the story breathe—even if they go completely unnoticed. I think of writers like Barbara Kingsolver or Zadie Smith or, now, Colson Whitehead. His writing matches what the tone of the book is without showing off or having the reader stop and say, “Wow, that Whitehead is a good writer.” At the end of this novel I stopped and thought, “Wow, that was a powerful story,” and I think that is a better compliment.

Really good writers know when to get out of the way and just write a story.
Jonathan Minnema

What Whitehead does so well is that he does not shy away from exaggerated facts, yet he mixes in those exaggerated facts with gaunt reality. The reader fails to grasp reality in the novel. And I think Whitehead does this, in part, because through the confusion of what’s real, through the not knowing where this novel is going to end up, you—again, in part—empathize with what the slaves are going through as they attempt their escape.

The entirety of the novel felt very akin to going to Yad Vashem in Israel—the holocaust museum. The museum is built so that as soon as the participant walks into the museum they can see the end staring at them from about fifty yards away. Yet as you start to go through the museum you begin to realize that it’s a maze, that you are forced to walk back and forth into horrors of pictures and videos and stories.

Each time you arrive back in the middle, in between the rooms you are forced into, you can see the exit, no closer than it seemed before, before you must go back into another horrifying room of remembrance. It is without a doubt the greatest designed museum I have ever been to because it makes you feel—albeit feel only an immensely tiny portion—what the Jewish people felt.

Yad Vashem

Whitehead accomplished this in The Underground Railroad. He made the end so tantalizingly close as he ducked Cora and Caesar in and out of danger and captivity. His exaggerated truth mixed with reality makes the readers confused as to what actually happened and what didn’t, perhaps for the sake that the reader can know an immensely tiny sliver of what it felt like for slaves—the confusion, the unknown, the fear of potentiality. 

As an example Whitehead put two things in this novel that I was horrified at the possibility of those things even potentially existing. The first is when Cora finds that a “hospital” in a city of refuge is actually a eugenics lab and is experimenting with euthanasia. The second is a road called the “Freedom Trail” where slaves hang on trees for miles and miles. I was horrified that these things possibly existed, so I researched and found that they didn’t.

But this is to Whitehead’s glory as we, as Juan Gabriel Vásquez says, “begin to notice, as readers, slight departures from historical fact, places where ‘The Underground Railroad’ becomes something much more interesting than a historical novel. It doesn’t merely tell us about what happened; it also tells us what might have happened.” And this seems like a significant distinction in this novel. Two steps to the left or right, and these things could have existed. For all we know, they might have. 

“There was only darkness, mile after mile.”
Colson Whitehead

In one of the most piercing paragraphs in the entire novel, Cora and Caesar begin their first leg of traveling on the Underground Railroad, and the white station-keeper says to Cora, “‘If you want to see what this nation is all about, I always say, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through and you’ll find the true face of America.’ . . . Following Lumbly’s final instructions, Cora looked through the slats. There was only darkness, mile after mile.” 

In reading this during the insanity of this election I quickly realized that our understandings of history simply come from our own perspective about what we think that history is—and most of the time we ignore everything that did not happen directly to us or that was in any way negative.

So, the slogan “Make America Great Again” comes from a white, upper class male who has had very little hardship in his life, and white, upper class men have had very little hardship as well. From a Native American perspective, this country was founded on genocide. From an African-American perspective, this country was founded on slavery. From a woman’s perspective, this country was founded on oppression and patriarchy that is near impossible to break.

Whitehead puts it better than I do—obviously, because he won a National Book Award for his writing—when he writes in the novel,

America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes—and believes with all their heart—that it is their right to take the land. To kill indians. Make way. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.

In other words, America was never great to begin with.

Jonathan Minnema
Jonathan is the managing editor for Fathom Magazine. You can reach him at jon@fathommag.com and @jonminnema.

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