Cora, the main character of this book, is the granddaughter of Ajarry, born in Africa, sold multiple times until she lands at a cotton plantation in Georgia. In this way the story begins with the horror of those brought from Africa. Ajarry died in the cotton field.
Liberty was reserved for other people, for the citizens of the City of Pennsylvania bustling a thousand miles to the north. Since the night she was kidnapped she had been appraised and reappraised, each day waking upon the pan of a new scale. Know your value and you know your place in the order.
Ajarry's daughter Mabel escaped, leaving her daughter Cora behind. Caesar asked Cora to run, having seen what a fierce soul she was, perhaps because her mother had escaped and was never found. Caesar was from Virginia, where he and his parents were owned by an apparently kindly woman who taught him to read and led the family to believe they would be freed upon her death. Instead they were sold south.
Caesar told Cora about the underground railroad, in this book an actual train on tracks with conductors. Their first stop is in South Carolina where it appears they are in a benign world; they live in dorms and have jobs where they are respected. Cora begins to realize that those who help them are not so benign after all and that medical experimentation and sterilization awaits them. In North Carolina, Cora's next stop, she is isolated in eaves above an attic for months where she observes the weekly lynchings in a nearby park in the attempt there to eliminate black people from the state.
Meanwhile we have been introduced to Ridgeway, a successful slave catcher, who becomes obsessed with Cora as his one failure was to capture Cora's mother Mabel. He captures Cora in North Carolina and before returning her to Georgia, takes a detour to return another slave. While in Tennessee, Cora is miraculously extricated from Ridgeway and the group makes their way by the railroad to a black farm cooperative in Indiana where they are welcomed. Their feeling of safety proves illusory and the forces arrayed against them destroy the farm.
The Gulliver-like experiences that Cora has as she moves from state to state reflect the variety of experiences of black people, but not necessarily in that place or time. In an interview with Book Pages in August, 2016, Whitehead says that only the section about Georgia is based on historical slave narratives he read. In the other sections he is revealing "the truth of the black experience but not necessarily the facts." He is "playing with history and time, moving things up to talk about the Holocaust, the Tuskegee syphilus experiment, and the eugenics movement."
Whitehead says this about the existence of the railroad itself:
She discovered a rhythm, pumping her arms, throwing all of herself into movement. Into northness. Was she traveling through the tunnel or digging it? Each time she brought her arms down on the lever, she drove a pickax into the rock, swung a sledge onto a railroad spike. She never got Royal to tell her about the men and women who made the underground railroad. The ones who excavated a million tons of rock and dirt, toiled in the belly of the earth for the deliverance of slaves like her. Who stood with all those other souls who took runaways into their homes, fed them, carried them north on their backs, died for them. The station masters and conductors and sympathizers. Who are you after you finish something this magnificent–in constructing it you have also journeyed through it, to the other side. On one end there was who you were before you went underground, and on the other end a new person steps out into the light. The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath, the miracle you made with your sweat and blood. The secret triumph you keep in your heart.
Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad, Doubleday, 2016, 306 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.