Punishments are frightening in Colson Whitehead’s harrowing book “The Underground Railroad, in which the descriptions and the narrative are more vivid than the plot.

On the Randall plantation in Georgia in the 1830s, cruelty was as common as the sunrise – the lash, the cat-o-nine tails; stripped naked and hung up; after a whipping, pepper water thrown on the wounds to sting more.

The horror of public beating was commonplace: “It was customary for slaves to witness the abuse of their brethren as moral instruction. At some point during the show everyone had to turn away, if only for a moment, as they considered the slave’s pain and the day sooner or later when it would be their turn at the foul end of the lash.”

“Justice” for Big Anthony, who was captured after an attempted escape, was a horror witnessed by the slaves of the planation, but an entertaining spectacle for the whites. He dangled from the stocks on the first day. “On the second day, a band of visitors arrived in a carriage, august souls from Atlanta and Savannah. Swell ladies and gentlemen … as well as a newspaper man from London come to report on the American scene. They ate at a table set upon the lawn, savoring Alice’s turtle soup and mutton. … Big Anthony was whipped for the duration of their meal, and they ate slow. … On the third day, just after lunch, the hands were recalled from the fields, the washwomen and cooks and stable hands interrupted from their tasks, the house staff diverted from its maintenance. They gathered on the front lawn. Visitors sipped spiced rum as Big Anthony was doused with oil and roasted. The witnesses were spared his screams, as his manhood had been cut off on the first day, stuffed in his mouth and sewn in.”

Cora, still a teenager, is beaten one evening in the middle of a plantation revel, because she tried to protect a young boy from the master’s silver-topped cane. A scar forms, both on her face and in her heart, and when Caesar, a slave sold to the Randall plantation after the death of a “kinder” owner in Virginia, invites her to run away with him, the decision travels from heart to head.  Caesar knows about the underground railway, and the two escape with another woman, Lovey, who is soon captured, returned and hung on a metal hook to die.

“If you want to see what this nation is all about, I always say, you have to ride the rail. Look outside as you speed through and you’ll find the true face of America,” their first engineer tells them.

The rides on the underground railway, which in this novel is built of actual tracks, are rough; and the stations where Cora spends time do not afford her final comfort or safety. After some time in her first station stop, where she gets new clothes, a place to stay and a new name, she learns that the local hospital is chronicling the cycle of syphilis as it attacks the black population. Other doctors in the hospital offer medical “relief” to the black women in the form of coerced sterilization.

Later Cora stays for months in a garret, where, from a small hole in the wall, she can witness the weekly public hangings of black people.   

The slave catcher Ridgeway has chased her unrelentingly since her escape, possibly because he had never been able to catch her mother, Mabel – who, everyone thinks, escaped scot free.  After Ridgeway catches Cora for the first time, the small group – Ridgeway’s slave catchers and a couple of other runaways – traverse Tennessee on the Trail of Tears.

“All the smart men are talking about Manifest Destiny,” Ridgeway tells Cora. “It means taking what is yours, your property, whatever you deem it to be. And everyone else taking their assigned places to allow you to take it. Whether it’s red men or Africans, giving up themselves, giving of themselves, so that we can have what’s rightfully ours.”

The America Cora sees is an olio of violence, compassion, oppression, hope, and severe constraint. The Underground Railroad in this book is a physical railroad, dug out and laid, as was most of early America, by slaves. The rails and tracks took Cora on her journey, but Caesar says Cora was “the locomotive itself.”

The sections of the book each begin with a scrap of newspaper clipping describing a runaway slave and the reward for return. The last one describes Cora, at the end of the book but not of the journey: “Ran Away from her legal but not rightful master. … She has stopped running. Reward remains unclaimed. She was never property.”

Mr. Whitehead said his main sources for the story were slave narratives, including those by Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Solomon Northup.

Readers may be shaken by the narrative, which presents the brutality of slavery in such non-sensational prose that one is reminded of “the banality of evil,” but “The Underground Railroad” is sure to open a path to frank discussions of race.

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...