Whitehead retells the story of the Under­ground Railroad

Enslaved, aban­doned, bloodied, shackled, but never con­quered. This is Cora, a slave picking cotton in ante­bellum Georgia, an escapee dis­ap­pearing into assumed iden­tities, a free woman emerging in the far north.

Colson Whitehead uses his­torical, pre-Civil War America as a backdrop for Cora’s story, but his plot hinges on a highly-fic­tional version of the Under­ground Railroad: his char­acters escape the south through sub­ter­ranean steel tracks and rickety cars chugging north rather than through the network of abo­li­tionists and safe houses. When Whitehead attempts to make a statement about slavery’s lasting effects and cul­tural impli­ca­tions, his procla­mation loses its cred­i­bility and weight amid fic­tion­alized history.

Cora’s mother, Mabel, birthed her in a slave’s cabin, and aban­doned her daughter for the dream of freedom 10 years later. When Cora reaches adulthood, she flees bondage, trading one life of horror for another. She escapes Georgia, riding the under­ground railroad to South Car­olina, where she finds herself living in a town where doctors secretly practice eugenics and institute dan­gerous medical exper­i­ments on fellow members of Cora’s race. Before she can warn her new friends, Ridgeway, the slave catcher who failed to return Mabel to Georgia, dis­covers Cora, forcing her to run again.

She finds refuge in an North Car­olina attic, hiding in a few square feet of dust and suf­fering months of silent tedium. When Ridgeway dis­covers her, her con­fi­dants are hung, and Cora begins a journey back to Georgia in her slave catcher’s wagon until a trio of runaway slaves intercept and kill her captors. Together, the fugi­tives progress further north, set­tling in Indiana until the pattern repeats itself — they are safe until they must escape again.

Cora’s story reaches its abrupt ending in Michigan. After she descends into the under­ground railroad one last time, pro­pelling herself in a handcar for miles, she finds genuine freedom: “Cora put miles behind her, put behind her the coun­terfeit sanc­tu­aries and endless chains.”

Cora’s escape is gripping, and the other stories revolving around the under­ground railroad com­pliment her own to provide it due context. To tell these tales, Whitehead unravels each nar­rative with graphic detail that sat­u­rates every scene. The (nameless) nar­rator accounts for slavery’s vio­lence with screams tearing from soundless pages, its injustice with images staining the unil­lus­trated chapters.

This illus­tration allows readers to witness Cora’s tragedy, but Whitehead’s book is so full of fic­tional ele­ments dis­tancing it from his­torical reality that it lacks the cred­i­bility needed to make a statement about slavery, its enduring ram­i­fi­ca­tions and its cul­tural impli­ca­tions. Whitehead does attempt to make such a statement when he slips into the first person plural for the first and only time near the end of the book, which oth­erwise uses the third person throughout the rest of the book.

“A horseshoe puckered on Sybil’s neck, ugly and purple… Cora thanked the Lord that her skin had never been burned in such a way. But we have all been branded even if you can’t see it, inside if not without.”

This is the only use of the pronoun “we” in more than 300 pages of text — 300 pages telling a story about the under­ground railroad so removed from his­torical fact that its plot hinges on a railroad built lit­erally beneath the ground. For Whitehead to simply define slavery’s effects and declare them har­bored by a non-spe­cific we — does he mean himself? escaped slaves in the pre-Civil War era? all African-Amer­icans? anyone with enslaved ancestors? — within the context of a highly fic­tional story damages his point.

With such a departure from history, it’s hard to believe an unwar­ranted statement that makes such a large claim about a national tragedy afflicting real people.