by Judith Hamer
A good book can provoke an impassioned discussion about plot or character or theme. A friend and I were discussing The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel. “ I don’t see why we need to know what happened to Mabel,” I stated flatly. Mabel is the missing mother of Cora, the book’s protagonist. My friend, having read the book twice, disagreed with me vehemently. We agreed to disagree. Now that I’ve re-read Whitehead’s fictional account of Cora’s escape from a Georgia plantation and her run for freedom by way of an imagined underground railroad, I’m coming around to my friend’s point of view.
At first, Cora’s personality compels us to read. We are drawn to her because she’s a fighter and she’s deliberate and she’s smart – not your stereotypical slave, portrayed in much of the literature and history about slavery, as quick to anger or to sulk, passionate and illogical. Cora has agency despite the brutal constraints of plantation life – ad hoc beatings, routine rapes. Will she run, won’t she run, why and how? We are sure, like Cora, that if she runs, she will find a better life.
Whitehead’s prose keeps us reading. Like many slave narratives, it is often flat and unembellished as It describes horrors that have to be re-read to be believed – savage beatings delivered as casually as one would stomp on an errant ant found on a kitchen countertop, deadly medical experiments performed by dispassionate doctors on slaves instead of lab rats, regularly scheduled and ritualized community lynchings. Whitehead says of these scenes: “I didn’t put anything in there that hadn’t happened.”
Occasionally he plumbs the depths of Cora’s mind: she intervenes in the beating of a young boy “before the slave part of her caught up with the human part of her.” Unlike slave narratives, Whitehead uses the railroad as a fictional device to transport Cora from one state to another. She runs, she rides, and she runs again through South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana and perhaps Missouri. The railroad propels the reader headlong into an adventure. Its unpredictable arrivals, with the rush of air that precedes it and the clickety-clack sound of the wheels that the reader imagines, all hold out a promise that the author will answer the question at the heart of all stories, “Will it turn out alright?”
When Cora settles into the Eden-like farm of the Valentines in Indiana, she and the reader want to believe that this home is permanent. But given the virulence of racism, she comes to realize what many of us know: that the North offers only “counterfeit sanctuaries.“ On the first reading I had hoped that there would be a happy ending, that “liberty and justice for all” would prevail despite all evidence to the contrary in the novel and in real life. On the second reading I realized a fundamental truth about Cora: what she got was often not what she wanted and not what the reader expected. Gilbert and Sullivan’s ironic words of warning come to mind: “Things are seldom what they seem.” What will Cora find in her continuing sojourn? Given the pervasive racism in this country, I believe that Ellison’s words in the Invisible Man indicate her future: “keep this n***r [girl] runnin.” What do you think? Read The Underground Railroad and decide.