Book: The Underground Railroad

Author: Colson Whitehead

Review by: William De Baets, consul general of Belgium for the Southeast U.S.

William De Baets, Belgium’s consul general in the Southeast

I received Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad for my birthday last June. When I started reading it I realized it was the first fictional book I had read about slavery. It was also the first time I read the account of what slaves and runaways had to go through, rather than a more historic, academic (and therefore somehow more distant) study of “America’s original sin.”

The story is about slaves running off plantations, hiding and escaping slave catchers and trying to reach friendlier places north. It focuses on Cora, a slave girl on a plantation in Georgia, whose mother Mabel had run off years before, and who joins her fellow slave Caesar in an escape. During the escape she kills a white boy. That makes her a murderer and therefore it becomes even more critical she not be recaptured.

They use the Underground Railroad to flee to South Carolina where they enjoy for awhile a better life thanks to a government program for former slaves. The program turns out not to be that friendly for black people however: Cora in South Carolina encounters another main character in the book, bounty hunter and slave catcher Ridgeway, who had failed to capture Cora’s mother and swore not to make this mistake again. By herself now, Cora uses the Underground Railroad again, heading for North Carolina. There, the terror against black people and whites who aided them via the Freedom Trail forces her to keep hidden for months. Eventually she will be recaptured and the couple who hid her executed.

There are many more twists and turns in the plot, but suffice to say that it’s never quite clear on which route the Underground Railroad will take Cora throughout the story.

Understanding the storyline wasn’t too difficult, but I have to admit that the vocabulary was quite challenging for non-native speakers of English. It had nothing to do with the English we learned at school, the vocabulary in our daily conversations or the diplomatic language we use in our professional life. My dictionary was never too far away.

Words were not the only way Whitehead gave me a hard time. His book might be fictional, describing the Underground Railroad as a real rail transport system with a real network of underground tracks, stations, locomotives and wagons. But the descriptions of the hardships escapees face were grimly realistic.

The plot reminded me a lot the stories about life in Nazi-occupied Belgium during World War II, where Jews, English pilots and other people the Nazis were looking for had to hide and people who helped them lived in constant terror and uncertainty. But that only lasted five years. Slavery was decades-long problem that was entrenched and legitimized by the governments of the day. While we can scarcely imagine this very dark past today, doing so is paramount to understanding the history of the region where I now represent Belgium’s interests.

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