I'm not an avid follower of literary prizes, and don't necessarily agree with the verdicts of the judges of those I do become aware of. But I have had good luck with those of the Fiction category of the Pulitzer Prize that I've read recently, as I really loved All the Light we Cannot See (2015) and The Goldfinch (2014). Though I wouldn't read a book just because it's won the prize, it does add some incentive, or at least curiosity to see what I think. So the fact that it was this year's winner was maybe a slight incentive to get hold of The Underground Railroad, plus some good reviews I'd read - but I probably would have got around to it in the end because I am fascinated by the terrible history of slavery and its aftermath. And I'm really glad I did.
However, though this novel is hugely informative about the treatment of and attitudes to enslaved people, it's not a straightforward history. In fact, though I may be wrong, I believe that no dates are attached to the story. We might assume that it takes place before the end of the American Civil War (1865), when slavery was abolished, but since this is a work that combines fact with imagination, I'm not even sure about that. Certainly, the primary liberty that Whitehead takes with the facts is that the term Underground Railroad, normally a metaphor applied to a secret network of secret routes and safe houses for those fleeing captivity, here takes on a real tangible existence. A network of tunnels has been carved out of the earth, with stations located underneath houses and barns. Those fugitives who know of its existence can use it to travel from state to state, hopefully ending up somewhere where to live a free life without threat of recapture becomes a living reality. Canada is a popular destination, and indeed history records that of the nearly 4 million people in bondage in 1860, 30,000 managed to escape there. Not a huge proportion, maybe, but considering that escape was an enterprise fraught with danger and the threat of terrible retribution, quite an achievement But then, as we are told in the novel, 'Every slave thinks about it. In the morning and in the afternoon and in the night. Dreaming of it. Every dream a dream of escape even when it didn’t look like it'.
This is the story of Cora. A young girl as the story begins, she has recently lost her mother Mabel, who has somehow managed to escape from the plantation in Georgia where they were both born. Cora is being punished for her mother's disappearance, and the increasing hardships of her life make it easier to agree with an escape plan put to her by her fellow slave Caesar. They find the Railroad and make their way to South Carolina, which has a liberal view of black people (I suspect this is a fiction?). Under assumed names, the fugitives are able to be housed, get work, and take classes. Cora learns to read and write and is happy there until she learns that the medical establishment plans to sterilise black people as an experiment. Finding out that Ridgeway, a notorious slave-catcher, is in pursuit of her and Caesar, the two plan a getaway - but Caesar is killed by Ridgeway and Cora must continue on her own. The Railroad takes her on to North Carolina, which has a dramatically different attitude to slaves - essentially the state wishes to eliminate them altogether, and does so by means of violent and dreadful punishments and murders. The abolitionist who takes Cora in is terrified of repercussions, and hides Cora in an attic for some months. Eventually she is found and recaptured by Ridgeway, and so begins a long journey south as a captive. Will she ever make it to freedom?
Ridgeway is a powerfully vivid character. His determination to capture Cora is amplified by the fact that his attempts to find her mother have ended in one of the few failures of his long career. He exemplifies what he call 'the American spirit':
the one that called us from the Old World to the New, to conquer and build and civilise. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription – the American imperative.
Unfortunately today we have come to realise forcibly that these attitudes did not die with the abolition of slavery. So this brilliant novel is both vivid reminder of America's shameful past and a message that human beings have a long way to go before freedom from persecution becomes a reality for everyone, regardless of colour or creed.