Each year, the English Department presents its Big Read: a common read program designed to connect Purdue’s campus to the greater Lafayette area. Our book selection for 2018-2019 was Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning novel, The Underground Railroad (2016). The Big Read came to a close with the department’s annual Literary Awards, where Whitehead was the keynote speaker. His visit also included a reading from The Underground Railroad and a book signing.
Set in antebellum America, The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a young slave on a southern plantation. Born and raised into U.S. slavery (the novel also includes a glimpse into Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry, who was forcibly taken out of Africa and sold in America, and her mother Mabel), Cora is left an outcast after her mother runs off without her. A fellow slave named Caesar approaches Cora with an offer to flee, but she is reluctant to go with him; once conditions on the plantation worsen, however, Cora agrees.
What follows is an unconventional coming of age story, part slave narrative, part historical fiction, part magical realism, in which Whitehead transforms the metaphorical Underground Railroad of our historical memory into an actual mode of transportation. Secret tracks buried beneath the ground connect cities as “stops” along the way, while conductors like Martin, whom Cora en-counters in North Carolina, operate the train and help runaway slaves on their way to freedom.
The Big Read organizes several community events and activities, including book discussions open to the public, to foster connections between campus’ and the community’s literati. Recently, the West Lafayette Public Library was host to one such gathering of students and local residents. The review that follows is the result of an afternoon spent delving into the pages of Whitehead’s novel. While not everyone enjoyed the text, we all appreciated the beauty of Whitehead’s writing, and the story’s social significance.
The Underground Railroad is written in the third person, unlike other novels featuring enslaved female protagonists, such as Octavia Butler’s Kindred or Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. Participants worried that this narrative distance might inhibit some readers from identifying strongly with the novel’s protagonist. However, Whitehead turns this narrative pitfall into success in the presentation of his minor characters. Our group was impressed by the dynamism and roundedness of The Underground Railroad’s supporting cast—especially its villain Ridgeway. While it is easy to dismiss the slave catcher as immoral, the unbiased third person narration—plus the inclusion of a chapter from his point of view—results in a surprisingly and uncomfortably relatable character.
This is what Whitehead’s novel does best: It forces the reader to confront the gray area in what they thought was black and white—both historically and in contemporary society. Of course the slave catcher is evil, and, certainly, the brutal violence of Ridgeway and his associates bear this out. But Ridgeway is much more terrifying because we understand who he is. He, like us, has a moral code. We can disagree with that code, find it despicable, but the novel’s ambiguous treatment of Ridgeway’s fate suggests to the reader that the Ridge-ways of the world are not confined to history—they prowl among us today.
Likewise, The Underground Railroad’s America demands comparison with ours. In its opening pages, the novel shows us America through Ajarry’s eyes: “In America the quirk was that people were things… If you were a thing—a cart or a horse or a slave—your value determined your possibilities” (p. 7). This first glimpse prompted our group to wonder if the issues dealt with in the novel still affected us today, to a resounding yes. Several people drew comparisons between the slave catching scenes and the racial injustices of the 1960s and even now.
What generated the most conversation was the novel’s titular feature. In what some considered a brilliant innovation, Whitehead transformed the historical Underground Railroad—a network of abolitionists and sympathizers that ferried and sheltered runaway slaves, famously associated with Harriet Tubman—into an actual railway. This blurs the genre of the novel. Is it historical fiction? Magical realism? The result is somewhere in the middle, with the train structuring the text’s episodic nature; each chapter is like a station, and the travel motif also governs the nonlinear time frame. While Cora’s story does not progress in a sequential order, the train contextualizes the resulting disjointedness of time and space.
Our discussion ended with us considering the news that The Underground Railroad will be adapted into a television series. We were all pleased that the story could be seen on the small screen. Several people likened the possible adaptation to Roots, another slave narrative transformed into a generation-defining miniseries in the 1970s. They believed The Underground Railroad had the potential to be as culturally important in this medium.
Despite our excitement, however, we had concerns. Would the series sanitize the violence of Cora’s experience? How would it depict the Underground Railroad? Is it possible that those unfamiliar with history would take this more fantastic of version of the network as fact? On the flipside, could its magical elements be taken too far in an effort to attract viewers? The novel’s hopeful, open ending leaves space for continuing the story, and we discussed the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as an example. We don’t know if Whitehead is involved in the adaptation, but we hope the television series is faithful to what made The Underground Railroad so successful: its captivating story.
Amanda Leary is a Literature PhD Student in the English Dept. at Purdue.