Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad won the National Book Award for that year and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the first book to win both awards. The last three Carnegie Medal for Fiction winners have gone on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well, making Whitehead’s book the current favorite for that honor as well, and it would certainly fit both in the quality of the work itself and the kind of American themes the Pulitzer committee is charged with identifying.
Whitehead’s alternative history has an actual railroad operating underground, in secret, ferrying slaves to freedom in the north with the help of abolitionist whites, with southern plantation owners and slave-hunters trying to ferret out its locations and operators. This becomes the route for Cora, a slave on a brutal plantation in Georgia who has been abandoned by her mother (who fled the plantation without a word) and finds the farm’s ownership going from bad to worse, as she attempts to find freedom in the north despite impossible odds and the threat of torture and death if she’s caught and returned to her owner.
Cora herself is one of the great strengths of the novel, as Whitehead has created one of the most memorable and compelling female protagonists in American fiction. It’s easy for a writer to craft a fictional slave who captures the sympathy of readers; Whitehead’s success is in crafting one who captures our empathy. Cora is strength in futility, a tightly wound ball of fear, rage, and grief who makes her dash out of a desire for freedom and a quest for a connection to the family she’s lost. She’s neither broken by the dehumanizing experiences she had as a slave, nor unbroken as we might expect of a fictional heroine. There’s enough reason in Cora’s character to doubt that she’ll succeed in reaching her goal.
The other strength of The Underground Railroad is the setting, which goes beyond the mere reimagining of the titular escape route as a physical entity. Cora lands in South Carolina and then North Carolina, each of which has come up with its own “solution” to the slave question rather than continuing to employ slaves as in the true antebellum south – but, of course, South Carolina’s superficial paradise has a sinister plan beneath the surface, while North Carolina chose to end slavery in vile fashion that has some unfortunate parallels in our modern climate. She eventually ends up in Indiana, where a house of free blacks simply proves too successful to stand even in the face of whites who oppose slavery and would likely feign horror if anyone called them racists. None of these places after Georgia is based in historical reality; each is the product of an imagination that can take a metaphor and create a realistic setting that puts ideas into buildings, people, and actions. It’s fictional but not fanciful, and each location is a world unto itself that could easily have hosted an entire novel and would generate hours of discussion about the meanings beneath the details.
Cora is hunted throughout the book by the amoral, mercenary slave-hunter Ridgeway, who refers to any slave as “it” and travels with the most motley crew of associates imaginable. But Ridgeway himself is utterly two-dimensional, maybe one-dimensional, and instead seemed to me to be a clear attempt by Whitehead to make Cora’s fear of recapture and memories of oppression incarnate. She cannot escape her past until and unless she escapes Ridgeway for good. That doesn’t make him an interesting character, but in a book that seems to urge us to fight the national tendency to forget the sins of our fathers, it makes him an invaluable one.
The nature of the rest of the book makes the other characters, most of whom are white, less than two-dimensional as well, although again it seems that Whitehead is using these people as stand-ins for ideas. The well-meaning whites in South Carolina are particularly striking because they are so opaque, and because they tell themselves they’re doing the Right Things, even when what they’re doing is ultimately both wrong and springs from a sentiment that is itself thoroughly wrong. The couple who harbor Cora in North Carolina present different sides of the white person who knows slavery is wrong, but chooses to look the other way, to decline to get involved, or to just generally protect his/her own well-being rather than helping others in more desperate straits. Creating so many underdeveloped side characters is generally a major flaw in a novel, but the genius here is in creating characters from ideas without them becoming totally one-note.
I have no idea if The Underground Railroad should or will win the Pulitzer, since I haven’t read any other 2016 books yet aside from the one I’m reading now, Francine Prose’s Mister Monkey. I can say that few books of recent vintage have disturbed me the way Whitehead’s book has; the world he’s created manages to be abhorrent and magnetic at once, a world you’d never want to live in but that you can’t help but want to see. And it’s so full of ideas without ever devolving into sermon, imploring us to remember our past and accept that we will never fully escape it. The book’s final chapter is less conclusion than peroration, showing us the difficulty of becoming free of our history and depicting just one narrow path to get there.