If you only read the first 66 pages of Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award-winning novel “The Underground Railroad,” you might think it was a traditional, if gut-wrenching, portrait of slave life on a Georgia cotton plantation.
But on page 67 comes the twist. Cora, an escaped slave, reaches the Underground Railroad. In Whitehead’s novel, though, the institution’s name is quite literal. Cora boards a locomotive, and heads north through a tunnel laid deep under the Southern soil.
This speculative element grants Whitehead’s imagination free reign, and is part of the secret behind the novel’s critical and popular success.
“It never occurred to me to write a historical novel,” Whitehead explains. “I’ve written books that are realistic, and others have elements of fantasy. I think the fantastic is just a tool I use when it’s appropriate.”
“When I first came up with this idea many years ago, I wasn’t setting out to write about slavery or to talk about race. I just thought, what if the Underground Railroad were a real railroad, wouldn’t that be a weird idea?”
In addition to inventing a literal railroad, Whitehead creates his own version of each stop along the way. Cora emerges from the dark tunnel in a series of new states — South Carolina to North Carolina to Tennessee to Indiana — only to find a world that is barely recognizable compared to the prior stop.
“Not being bound to the historical record, not being bound to what actually happened, allowed me to place different elements of American history in conversation with each other, and then see what develops, and see what kind of reckoning you can make when you use your imagination and let your creativity alter the proceedings.”
At the same time, Whitehead recognizes the seriousness of his subject and the need to treat the history behind his creation with respect.
“While I studied American history in college, doing this research reacquainted me with just how vast and brutal the system was. I think [the novel] provides people with an opportunity to confront American history in a way that they might not necessarily get a chance to in their everyday experiences.”
Cora spends much of the novel fleeing a brutal and relentless slave hunter named Ridgeway. This chase adds one final element to the narrative mix: a sense of adventure. Cora’s situation is literally life-or-death, and even when she experiences a moment of peace or contentment, suspense simmers in the background.
No, the novel might not present facts, but it excels at investigating a painful truth lodged firmly in the heart of American history.
Whitehead adds, “I wanted to write from reading Steven King and Marvel Comics and science fiction, and so the use of the fantastic has always been in my toolkit, and I think part of the fun part of being a fiction writer is making things up.”
His enjoyment is evident in his writing, and in “The Underground Railroad,” so are his intellect and the empathy he shows to the long-gone people his characters represent.