By Mark Alpert
Have you read Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad? If not, you should. Anyone who’s serious about writing fiction can learn something from this amazing book.
The novel has won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The Washington Post called it “a triumph” and NPR said it was “an American masterpiece.” The Underground Railroad even got a blurb from Barack Obama. (“Terrific.”) You can’t get much better than that. (The only thing that could top it, maybe, would be a blurb from God: “I’ve been waiting since the First Day of Creation for a novel as good as this one!”)
I finished reading the book yesterday, and today I thought of four useful lessons that I gleaned from the novel:
Don’t be afraid to write about a subject that’s been written about before. The Underground Railroad is about American slavery and all the agonizing attempts to escape it, which continued long after its abolition. For two centuries, the story of slavery has been chronicled in great detail, thanks mostly to the slaves who escaped their bondage and lived to write about it. Perhaps the best known of these stories is Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, written in 1845 by the famous abolitionist and former slave, but there were many, many others. Fiction about slavery soon followed: Josiah Henson, another former slave, dictated his life story to a fellow abolitionist — Henson hadn’t yet learned to read or write — and his memoir, published in 1849, became one of the major sources for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This was the top best-selling American novel of the 19th century, and it played an important role in influencing public opinion during the years just before the Civil War. According to one (probably apocryphal) account, when Stowe came to Washington in 1862 and met Abraham Lincoln, the president greeted her by saying, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” The quote is considered apocryphal because neither Stowe nor Lincoln ever mentioned it, and it didn’t appear in print until more than thirty years later, but it reflects an underlying truth: the novel was a major impetus for social and political change.
Many writers have continued to tell the story of slavery, in both fiction and nonfiction; notable examples include Toni Morrison’s 1987 masterpiece Beloved and the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave, which was based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir. Yet Colson Whitehead has added something fresh and new to the literature of slavery. Some parts of The Underground Railroad are conventionally realistic fiction, but other parts deviate from reality in disturbing and disorienting ways. The book’s main point-of-view character is Cora, a young slave born on a cotton plantation in Georgia, and the suffering she endures in the early chapters — the loss of her mother, a violent rape, and a horrible beating inflicted by one of the plantation’s owners — definitely seems realistic. But when Cora decides to flee to the North, the novel veers into a kind of alternative history, a world with fantastical elements that seem to heighten the horror of slavery and illustrate the exhaustingly extreme difficulty of escaping it.
Don’t be afraid to get wildly imaginative. Whitehead’s primary fictional innovation in this novel is to imagine that the Underground Railroad — the informal network set up by abolitionists to help fleeing slaves escape to the North — includes an actual underground railroad. Cora and another fugitive slave named Caesar are taken to a barn in the middle of the Georgia countryside; hidden beneath the hay on the barn’s floor are a trapdoor and a stone stairway leading down to a railroad platform. Steam locomotives speed through tunnels that stretch for hundreds of miles beneath the Southern states, stopping at stations that have to be carefully hidden from the local authorities. Whitehead allows his characters to marvel at the crazy improbability of the railroad in a conversation with Lumbly, the station agent:
Caesar could scarcely speak. “How far does the tunnel extend?”
Lumbly shrugged. “Far enough for you.”
“It must have taken years.”
“More than you know. Solving the problem of ventilation, that took a bit of time.”
“Who built it?”
“Who builds anything in this country?”
The novel gets even more inventive after Cora and Caesar complete the first leg of the journey and arrive in South Carolina. In the book’s alternative history, South Carolina is a state where seemingly kindhearted white people take in fugitive slaves and help them change their identities and give them paying jobs. But the kindheartedness is a sham; the true purpose of the operation is to sterilize the slaves and perform medical experiments on them. It seems as if the novel has jumped ahead in time and conflated the horror of slavery with the horrors that followed emancipation. Cora manages to escape South Carolina and take the Underground Railroad to North Carolina, but the situation there is even worse: the state has outlawed black people entirely. All African-Americans found within the state’s borders are hung from the trees alongside a country road, which is dubbed the Freedom Trail. The image made me think of the lynchings and genocides of the 20th century, as well as the alt-right’s despicable vision of a white-only America.
It’s okay to straddle the line between literary fiction and commercial suspense. Colson Whitehead is no stranger to thriller writing; his best-selling 2011 novel Zone One is a fast and fun zombie-apocalypse story. And many parts of The Underground Railroad are suspenseful and gripping. In fact, the suspenseful parts of the book complement the poetic and thoughtful sections. The novel’s chases and kidnappings and shootouts prevent the story from getting too cerebral and didactic. Conversely, the characters’ brilliantly written musings about slavery and freedom and the history of America elevate the book above most historical thrillers. Whitehead gives the story a universal feel. Its themes are relevant to contemporary society, which is still plagued with racial prejudice and hatred.
It all comes down to caring about the characters. The key to the novel’s success is Cora. She’s a wonderful character. I can’t really do her justice here. You’ll have to read the book to see what I mean.