In an interview with John Burnham Schwartz from the Wall Street Journal, Colson Whitehead explained that he had been playing around with two "science fictiony" questions for several years before he wrote this book.
the underground railroad was a literal railroad? And what if each state, as a runaway slave was going north, was a different state of American possibility, an alternative America?” (WSJ)Whoa. That sounds different. The Underground Railroad as a real railroad and each state as an alternative America? This book no longer sounds like it is the book we were expecting. Whitehead decided to plow new ground with his story of slavery and its horrors by mixing in some magical realism. In a sort of Gulliver's Travel type of tale where the protagonist enters a very different state-of-being with each state she enters, the story encompasses many more aspects of the African-American experience than just slavery.
When Cora escapes from slavery and by miraculously traveling on the literal underground railroad, each state she gets to on her journey north holds a new possibility and a new set of problems at the same time: eugenics, medical experimentation, complete ethnic cleansing, underemployment, etc. Each time Cora thinks she has found a better life for herself, she is forced to look at these new horrors. The effects of slavery didn't end when the slave escaped the plantation and its tentacles touched every aspect of American life.
To add another literary allusion, this one from Les Miserables, Cora is chased relentlessly by a slave-catcher named Ridgeway, who is very Javert-like in his determination to find and return her to her master. No matter how far north she goes, she still has to spend time looking over her shoulder every moment to make sure he has not found her, again.
Whitehead took years to write The Underground Railroad because he didn't just want to write another tale of what he called "A novel of southern black misery." He went on to tell Schwartz that he was just as surprised as his readers by the final product.
“Seeing how Cora learns so much from state to state,” he says, “her emotional and philosophical growth, how she changes from the first page to the last, and getting to a place where I could talk about so many different things in the book—eugenics and the Holocaust and debates between gradual black progress and more aggressive black progress—the sense that I was able to put in everything I wanted to say is truly gratifying.” (WSJ)There was a lot to say. Some critics have been critical of that very point. But Don and I appreciated it. The effect of slavery didn't end with the Civil War. Blacks in America have had to deal with a long history of a continuing degree of degradation. Because of the magical realism aspects of the writing, it is easier to apply the story to modern times and the current struggle with Black Lives Matter. We were left with a very clear understanding of the terrible cost of human slavery, and its toxic legacy.
This book is powerful and life-changing. It is not an easy-read, but it is an excellent-read.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Random House Audio, 2016. Narrated by Bahni Turpin.