Colson Whitehead’s varied catalog of novels began with history-steeped novels that sidestepped the conventions of historical fiction. The collage-like “John Henry Days,” for instance, used a 1996 summer festival to explore both the titular legend and the operations of modern publicity, a machine as relentless as any steam drill. Over its first 60 pages, Whitehead’s new book, “The Underground Railroad,” seems to be a more traditional historical novel. It’s instead a successful amalgam: a realistically imagined slave narrative and a crafty allegory; a tense adventure tale and a meditation on America’s defining values.
Set in the mid-19th century, the book begins in Georgia, on a cotton plantation under the divided control of two brothers: the sadistic Terrance and the more passively evil James. Cora, the novel’s protagonist, is a strong-willed teenage outcast whose mother escaped and was never found, leaving the daughter with warring feelings of pride and abandonment. After James dies, Cora agrees to risk an escape with Caesar, a transplant from Virginia recently befriended by a local agent of the Underground Railroad.
In Whitehead’s invention, the Underground Railroad is not only a secret body of free blacks and white abolitionists working to assist runaways in their journey North, but also an actual network of subterranean train routes, mysteriously dug tunnels with stations hidden under floorboards and hay bales.
Just as Whitehead here makes a metaphor literal, he elsewhere turns historical paradigms into fantasias. In a city in South Carolina, what at first seems like well-intentioned paternalism proves to be a sinister eugenics experiment. In North Carolina, where Cora hides in an Underground Railroader’s attic, fears of a slave revolt have led authorities to turn over field work to white immigrants, while the remaining black population is ritualistically lynched and left, like “rotting ornaments,” on an endless “Freedom Trail.”
Much of Whitehead’s earlier work is marked by elaborate riffs, ironic wit, and clever wordplay. Some of that remains — though harrowing, the book is by no means uniformly somber — but the prose is restrained, the tone and diction modern but peppered with enough formal or antiquated words to evoke the period. In the book’s longer chapters, the perspective sticks with Cora and her gradually expanding understanding, though she sometimes inspires other characters to launch into implausibly detailed exposition.
These chapters alternate with shorter ones in which the vantage shifts to secondary characters, including an Ahab-like slave catcher with a menacingly eloquent way of defending American will to power in its starkest terms. “In another country,” he thinks, his associates “would have been criminals, but this was America.”
Today, conservatives and liberals alike often speak of present actions or rhetoric as betrayals of our founding documents and ideals. The hero of this ingenious novel lives in an upside-down nation whose founding documents were betrayed from the start, whose ideals either mean nothing or are only honored by acts of outlaw kindness, whose true face can be seen through the windows of underground trains. Slavery, as the former slave Amy Perry once put it, was “like looking back into the dark — like looking into the night.”
Dylan Hicks is a Twin Cities writer and musician. His most recent novel is “Amateurs.”