I thought I knew a thing or two about the underground railroad, and I do. I didn’t, however, know that there were segments of actual rails with locomotives chugging along underground as they ferried their charges north. There are a lot of of “little known facts” scattered throughout Whitehead’s narrative, but it wouldn’t be a novel if that was all there was to it. In point of fact, there is far more than that, and far more than your conventional slave narrative in these pages. The heart of the book is Cora, raised in Georgia in the cruelest of slave conditions. The plantation owner has divided the land between his two sons, one a horrid martinet, the other a wastrel. Cora’s mother runs away, and Cora never sees her again (though we do) and she never forgives her for the abandonment. When Cora’s turn comes, she dithers, but finally goes ahead. In an old tale of cruelty masked as seductive kindness, we are treated to a Tuskegee experiment/eugenics community disguised as a betterment society for the colored. Then to a self-improvement society that allows escaped slaves and free colored to actually own and work their own land. You can probably guess how that all works out.
Thus does Cora’s journey to freedom mirror that of so many who have taken one form or another of the railroad only to find when they arrive that the station on their tickets have closed or been moved or blown up. Actually, this is not the bleak message I might make it sound like. There’s a lot of joy and hope here as well.
Furthermore, we needn’t despair, for the Orangeman has come to save us. Follow him. In his immortal words “What do you have to lose”?