There is often arguments when it comes to historical fiction about accuracy. How much leeway should story get over truth? For me historical fiction is not primarily about recounting historical events but is about conveying historical events through story so that as a reader you empathise and get a richer understanding and viewpoint that nonfiction is often constrained against providing. This is what Colson Whitehead does as he takes the folklore of the Underground Railroad, the network of safe houses and pathways that helped slaves in the 1800s escape north, and imagines it as a real working railway.
Colson Whitehead tells the story of Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Cora has grown up in a brutal and unforgiving world. The only world she has ever known. Her mother ran off years before and is the only slave known to have successfully escaped the farm on which Cora is enslaved. When Cora is approached to escape she at first refuses but after a series of, even more brutal than usual, beatings she decides it is time to run. Whitehead details Cora’s journey as she escapes via a real underground railroad. A railroad that takes her slowly north where Cora experiences new worlds, some better than others, but all shrouded by racism and violence. Sometimes overtly, other times more hidden.
Cora’s journey unfolds like an odyssey as Cora explores each new destination she arrives in with monsters and horrors hidden in various forms. Whitehead uses Cora’s journey to explore all the different manifestations slavery takes on in society. From the basic and ruthless slavery of people as property or beasts of burden to more subtle and sinister forms of racism and enslavement. Colson Whitehead’s writing is unflinching and uncompromising letting the brutality and reality of Cora’s world through. At times painful to read and at others more hopeful but never shying away from the awful truth.
Colson Whitehead has written a novel of true power. A novel more important than ever, that will stay inside you long after you put it down. A true must read.