The greatest trick Colson Whitehead ever pulled was convincing this bookblogger that he had written a realistic novel.
Yes, yes, I know that the fact the railroad in this novel is a literal series of tracks running under the nineteenth-century United States is revealed on the book jacket. I read the jacket before I read the book, I think, but this is Colson Whitehead. When he publishes a new book, I don’t ask questions. I just read.
The first sixty pages of this novel read like a fictionalized version of one of the well-known slave narratives: one by Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs or Solomon Northrup. Cora is orphaned, so to speak, when her mother, Mabel, escapes from the plantation, and she is sent to live in “the Hob,” a cabin in the slave quarter in which slave women live when they do not fit in anywhere else. The other women in the Hob do things like foam at the mouth and keen unconsolably – essentially, they are women so traumatized by slavery that they have stopped functioning and even the threats of punishment within the slave system can’t shock them into self-control. Cora is in the Hob partly because she became a pariah of sorts when her mother escaped but also because she chopped up a doghouse built by a new, powerful slave named Blake because Blake had chosen to build the doghouse on the plot of land Cora had long used to grow some vegetables and potatoes.
Now let’s wait for a minute here. Doghouses? Gardens? Was I tricked even more than I thought I was? I know that slaves on rice plantations in South Carolina and north Georgia maintained gardens to grow their food because they were not given food by their masters – but since Cora is the only slave who seems to care about her (or any) garden, this plantation does not seem to be one on which slaves were responsible for their own upkeep. And a doghouse? This plantation looks suspiciously like something out of an L.L. Bean catalog. Is this one of Whitehead’s games? Was he messing with me from the beginning, long before the Hogwarts Express pulled up to a station far underneath the southern U.S. to chug Cora off to points north? Let’s consider this question as we proceed.
As I said, the first sixty or so pages of this novel – Cora’s life on the plantation and her escape with a fellow slave named Caesar – felt realistic to me. When the Underground Railroad takes them to South Carolina (yes, South Carolina), a new chapter begins in which Cora has a new name (Bessie) and identity and is working as a valued nanny and housekeeper for a white family. She is paid for her work, and at the end of the day she goes home to a dorm created especially for ex-slaves. She is looked over by a white housemother figure named Miss Lucy, who corrects the ex-slaves’ grammar and generally treats them with solicitous condescension. Soon it becomes clear that this safe haven for runaway slaves expects a specific kind of payment: the ex-slaves are expected to submit to sterilization. No one is forced, but after Cora resists the efforts of Miss Lucy a couple of times, she is beset with other well-meaning white authority figures who smile sympathetically while explaining how much happier she will be if she just visits the doctor for this one simple procedure. I know that one of the sticking points in the anti-slavery debate in the 1800’s was the question of where ex-slaves would go and what they would do as free agents in the larger economy. It’s never stated outright, but apparently in this alternate history, South Carolina hopes to solve this problem by making it a temporary one, by making sure the descendants of African slaves do not survive in their state past the current generation.
Cora and Caesar spend considerable time in South Carolina, but eventually they choose to let the Underground Railroad whisk them farther north. They are soon separated, and Cora endures several terrible days trapped in a pitch-dark station that has been closed, only to find herself in North Carolina, which has taken a less subtle approach to dealing with its black population: total massacre of the race. Here, as in the other states in which Cora spends time, we meet some of the whites who shelter the runaway slaves, learning their stories and the reasons for their resistance.
Now that I’ve written about it, I do think this book’s first chapter is intentionally sly. Forever trapped on the first step of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, slaves probably did not build doghouses. South Carolina is famous as one of the most terrible places to be a slave, while North Carolina was one of the least horrific, relatively speaking. The American south depicted in this novel has the feel of something out of a George Saunders novel: almost a nightmarish theme-park version of our nation’s greatest reason for shame. I have to imagine that Whitehead’s purpose here to to draw attention to the fact that slavery has become mythologized in the American mind. Anyone who has read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass remembers Douglass’ harrowing time on Mr. Covey’s slave-breaking farm – both for Covey’s sadistic treatment of the slaves and for the triumphant way Douglass evades him. An acquaintance of mine who is a professor of African American history refers to this section of the Narrative as “propaganda.” He makes the point that plantations were businesses, and that as cruel as masters and overseers were, they also wanted to protect their investments, so their punishments always had the goal of making slaves work faster and more efficiently. He argues that the beatings depicted in the Narrative were meant to inspire pity and outrage among Northerners during the years before the Civil War; they were never meant as perfect realism. I cannot say on my own whether this acquaintance is correct: I believe him because he is a professor of African American history and because his argument that slaves were first and foremost business investments was persuasive, but I can’t confirm his assertions based on my own knowledge.
But that’s just it, isn’t it? We are a nation with a terrible past, and it is difficult for those of us without advanced history degrees to know where the lines are drawn between literal and figurative truth. Because I am glad that slavery ended when it did, I don’t look down on Douglass’ Narrative for being propaganda, if in fact it is. This is the nature of propaganda: people who support its purpose tend not to care if it reflects the literal truth. Whitehead’s novel plays with the mythological nature of our history as a slave nation. The “real” Underground Railroad (the one without tracks) was in some ways larger than life because of the courage and grit that were required to keep it moving and because of the fact that it saved as many slaves as it did; Whitehead mythologizes its greatness by transforming it into a literal railroad that runs in secret beneath the cities and countrysides of an oblivious nation. The insidious racism at the heart of Whitehead’s fictional South Carolina feels, by the time Cora leaves, as cruel as the most barbarous cotton plantation. The central message of this novel is that we don’t know as much as we think we know about our nation’s terrible history. This novel’s verisimilitude lies in the way it mixes fiction so freely with fact; in this it resembles the knowledge base of the average American.