[Originally appeared here: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/books/reviews/review-the-underground-railroad/articleshow/56417934.cms?]
Shaping a work around the theme of slavery and its many tentacles is a bit like shaping a lump of rigid clay into something cohesive and stable. On one hand, excessive pressure on misery squashes the vein of the narrative and on another, a voice too rebellious, hollows out the inherent pain of its victims. Drawing that line which does justice to this divide is certainly not an easy task and that is precisely where Whitehead shines.
‘The Underground Railroad’ is an allegorical tale, spoken through the life and times of Cora. Her grandmother, Ajarry, from Western Africa, was a worker on the sprawling Randall plantation in Georgia, where, eventually, she passed on the tarnished legacy to her daughter, Mabel and granddaughter, Cora. Slave owners measure their success in the amount of tyranny they exert and Randall was not the one to walk against the league. However, 16-years old Cora was made of sterner stuff than most around her and harboured a burning desire, every instant, to break free.
One fateful night, she manages to escape, with a compatriot, Caesar and makes her way to the underground railway station wherein a train promises her to scoop them away from the hell. And thus, begins her relationship with the unending maze of underground railroads that remains faithful to her survival till the last page of this book.
Whitehead draws a riveting picture of the slavery regime, with his nuanced characterization and feisty story-telling. The image of Cora is, all at once, an amalgamation of the bright and subdued; almost as if, she grows big and small in tune with her undulating escapes and captures. Even as she understands that she will remain perennially hunted, she is besieged with the dreams of a housewife. Whitehead takes extra care to keep Cora, a normal woman with not-so-normal scars.
Cora always fell asleep following Martin’s visit, sometimes after an interval of sobbing and sometimes so quickly she was like a candle being blown out.
As the adult Cora begins a new life in South Carolina under a false name, Bessie, between her chains and freedom, stands her fate and the perilous slave-catcher, Ridgeway. Ridgeway is fascinating in his ambition. He pursues Cora like a trained police dog and licks his lips in malice at her capture from a Stationmaster’s house. He also takes an orphan under his refuge and grants him a decent life of an account keeper for him. His dualities make him a human and a pariah, in a strange, stinging way.
She had never seen him rush or hurry. The man moved with exquisite calm, like a leaf drifting on the surface of a pond, making its own way on gentle currents.
Whitehead understands that secondary characters lift the statement being made by the protagonist to greater heights and thus, etches his’, with great tact. His terse descriptions of the slave camp in the conversations of its inhabitants are a subtle way of expressing their acceptance. From the apprehensions hanging thick in air in the houses of those who shelter Cora, to the womanly advice that comes in the dormitory Cora resides in as Bessie, just the right note of tension is released into the narrative to reflect the constantly alert mind of Cora. As the book says, “Whether in the fields or underground or in an attic room, America remained her warden.”
This is a hard-hitting tale of physical, social and psychological wounds that slavery inflicts and in a way, an appeal to stop the pursuit which has only taken a more refined and sophisticated garb in the current times. Otherwise, destination might turn an illusion soon and journey might assume, a very noxious connotation.
[Note: Thanks to Netgalley and Little Brown Book Group UK for providing me an ARC.]
[Image courtesy http://www.history.com]