These people slumped on their distracted circuits, looking this way and that, never in front as if to avoid the eyes of all the ghosts, the dead ones who had built their town. Colored labor had erected every house on the par, laid the stones in the fountain and the paving of the walkways. Hammered the stage where the night riders performed their grotesque pageants and the wheeled platform that delivered the doomed men and women to the air. The only thing colored folks hadn't built was the tree. God had made that, for the town to bend to evil ends.The conceit of Colson Whitehead's novel is that the Underground Railroad was not a metaphor but an actual railroad built underground. Actual steam engines barrel down narrow tunnels and stop under the homes of sympathetic whites. Cora, the protagonist, escapes the plantation were she was born and navigates the South on the railroad's various spurs. The South Whitehead has created is a haunting and bizarre variation on reality. South Carolina, for example, initially seems like the promised land for freed salves, until Cora discovers the dark motivation behind their warm welcome. North Carolina's streets are lined with hanging bodies--the state has virtually eradicated black men and women of any variety. Whitehead flips the narrative of pre-Civil War America on its head: his version of each state's treatment of blacks offers a metaphor for the atrocities of slavery and racism in America while the metaphorical Railroad has become real.
This book was, predictably, difficult to read. Rape, brutal beatings, hangings, and endless abuse are all documented in graphic detail. Metaphor may play a central role in the book, but literal violence also runs throughout. Where other novels documenting and critiquing slavery gloss over the more horrific qualities of racism, Whitehead does not spare his reader any detail. The vividness of the violence makes the book hard to read, but never feels gratuitous.
The novel isn't quite as relentlessly depressing as it sounds. Cora experiences a series of victories (some tiny, some massive), and, at one point finds herself on a farm in Indiana filled with free black men and women that offers the kind of community, friendship, and romance for Cora that you spend the novel wishing she could have.
The Underground Railroad offers up an appropriately brutal critique, not just of slavery, but of the state of racism in America today. The graphic violence makes it hard to recommend to everyone, but it's a book everyone should read. It's hard to get through, but that's kind of the point.
(This book doesn't come out until September...you'll have to wait until then for your dose of metaphorical reality).