“The almanac had a strange, soapy smell and made a cracking noise like fire as she turned the pages. She’d never been the first person to open a book.”
This book is not here to encourage your incipient optimism. If you are like me, you will spend its last pages suffused with pride that this country has made such gargantuan advances towards equality and genuine goodness, when compared with the portrait of America you encounter in this novel. You will also find yourself paralyzed with fear and motivated by disgust that this country could have ever been this portrait of America. It made me feel how fragile our advances are and how vital it is to turn our feet in the right direction, never placing one toe towards that world again.
It does this by following Cora, a young enslaved woman. The book is divided into multiple sections, each one either exploring a new state Cora runs to or spotlighting a specific supporting character. The first section aims to provide a historically accurate portrait of what it was like to be a slave and what it was like to risk the terrors of escape. From then, Whitehead employs his particularly well-honed talent for magical realism to elevate the novel into something extraordinary. In his conception, the Underground Railroad is made literal. Cora escapes through tunnels beneath the Southern earth on a series of makeshift trains.
Whitehead’s decision to use magical realism rather than a more strict historical realism could have been a risky one. There is so much power in the straight facts and first-person accounts of this time period. The facts are brutal and the accounts are harrowing and humbling. Why then not situate Cora within as exact a representation of slavery as possible? The question, really, is why fictionalize at all? Because, of course, so much can be accomplished by doing so. In hiding Cora in a North Carolina attic while an ethnic cleanse of all African Americans takes place outside her tiny window, Anne Frank can be evoked. Tuskegee can be foreshadowed in another section; the stop and frisk debate can be mirrored in the slave catcher’s actions. The pages are heavy. They are heavy with import, of course, but they are also physically heavy. It is a beautifully made book with thick pages and elegant script. The cover art evokes both the red clay earth of Georgia and the blood that watered it, a serpentine train track running over and off the sides. I recommend you buy the hardcover because you should read it immediately, but also because there is a pleasure to holding this book in your hands. The novel plays with this pleasure and how many could never imagine experiencing it. Don’t take for granted the unbelieving pleasure Cora takes when she is gifted a brand new book; savor it.
My only advice (beyond to read this without delay) is to be prepared for what you are picking up. Every aspect of slavery was harrowing, and escaping from it is was no exception. It is a legacy we can never expect to fully escape from ourselves.