The Okefenokee Swamp, in the southeast of the US, on the Georgia-Florida border, is one of the largest swamps in North America. Since the 1970s, it has been protected as part of a national wildlife refuge system that bears the swamp’s name, and is known for its unique biodiversity. And while Colson Whitehead doesn’t name the swamp, his Pulitzer and National Book Award winning novel, The Underground Railroad, begins here, in a cotton plantation, close to the swamps where Cora’s grandmother Ajarry arrives as a slave from the west of Africa to work in the cotton plantation owned by the Randalls.

In only a few brief pages, Whitehead details Ajarry’s life. Captured and brought across the sea in a slave ship, a journey marked by detour and disease, Ajarry is bought and sold in quick succession before she reaches the Randall plantation. The brevity and intense details seemingly mirror Ajarry’s own life, and those of slaves like her, where the hard and miserable present erases every memory and kills most joys. Hope prevails however, and it is, first, Ajarry’s daughter Mabel, and then Cora, her granddaughter, who dream of escape, using – as Cora does – the “underground railroad”.

The secret network

It takes only a google search. The fact is that it was not really a railroad, but, since the early and mid-19th century, more an “underground” or hidden and secret network of escape routes, meeting points, safe houses and “conductors” – abolitionists, fugitives, freemen and other sympathisers to the anti-slavery cause – who guided runaway slaves to safer, freer places in the northern United States and Canada’s Ontario province.

Whitehead uses the railroad not just as a metaphor for Cora’s escape, but also brings science fiction into history as he writes about an intricate spidery and secret network of railway lines under old, derelict, largely white-owned, farmhouses. Lines, always in the process of being made, then abandoned – following their discovery by “slave patrols” – and remade, so as to literally spirit away runaways to “freedom”. Among the earliest, true to life accounts of several such slave escapes is the abolitionist William Still’s The Underground Railroad Records, published in 1872.

These railway lines, as one sympathiser puts it in Whitehead’s novel, are “made by those who make things in this country” – that is, the slaves, of course. As the historian Walter Johnson has recounted in his River of Dark Dreams, a history “written from the bottom-up”, the 19th century economic system that saw industrialisation, a growing trans-Atlantic trade, and growing American prosperity, was built, in large part, on the slave system in the “cotton kingdoms” of the American South.

Chaos and complexity

Whitehead’s novel is set in the middle years of the 19th century, sometime between the passing of the Fugitive Law of the 1850s, which made it legal for southern states to demand restoration of “slave property” from the northern states, and the American Civil War (1861-1865). The Fugitive Law, which also preyed on fears of “rising slave power”, was a more stringent and brutal version of earlier laws, and now mandated city councils, officials and judges even in the north to assist slave catchers in their pursuit of runaways and fugitives. When Whitehead recounts, across several pages, Cora’s observations of slave trials, the capture – even of free men – and public hangings, this novel almost becomes a bookish companion to the 2014 film, Twelve Years a Slave (itself adapted from a novel).

Yet what Whitehead achieves with his very insistent, sharp and clear-eyed prose is also a realistic portrayal of what historians have detailed in the last couple of decades. The mid-19th century in his novel is murky. A kind of “wildness” reigns even in the East and the Midwest, evoked in his descriptions of immense forest fires, raids, and skirmishes between slave owners and plantations set up by freemen, long journeys spent in unending emptiness, and entire towns quarantined for yellow fever. Governments, as represented by local judges and officials, seem passive, overly pious, and– especially where slave-catchers are concerned – easily pliable.

Philanthropy, in some instances, as seen in the actions of some good white samaritans, can seem like patronage. Developments in science, such as emerging knowledge of eugenics, are also used, as Cora realises, to steal the very future away from the blacks, when freed slave women are encouraged to accept sterilisation.

Illusions of freedom

Freedom, as Cora understands gradually in her long days as a runaway, is never what it seems. The kind of freedom that forces her, after her escape, into a life in disguise, and then go on the run constantly –­ from Georgia to the Carolinas – and be forced to hide away for weeks in an attic isn’t what she expected. Dreams of freedom and its lost memories are what compel the three slaves on the plantation – Cora, Caesar and Lovey – to run away one early morning. But it involves death and deception, and the losses in terms of lives lost only keep mounting.

It is a journey where good and evil appear intertwined, sometimes enmeshed. Or where evil, as we might define it in the light of historical wisdom, comes enmeshed with an evangelical zeal. Ridgeway the slave catcher is driven to capture and restore slaves to their owners by an almost “spiritual zeal”. In his complexities and his almost “superhuman” success at chasing and tracking down runaway slaves, Ridgeway is no mere counter to Cora, a quarry who has compelled his many journeys and frustrated him across states.

Chasing slaves with an unrelenting passion, Ridgeway, however buys freedom for a slave, Homer, who has ostensibly no known master. Yet Homer chooses to remain with Ridgeway, assisting and abetting him in many slave-catching missions. Nor does Ridgeway, for reasons that appear to stretch beyond puritanism, have any inclination to assault or even kill Cora – as has happened in instances of other slave catchers.

Attracted more by the thrill of the chase, he remains undeterred in his goal: to restore slaves to their owners. In his independence and messianic fervour, Ridgeway harks back to – and, yet, is totally unlike – the “slave patrols” and militias which spread terror among slaves across Virginia and the Carolinas, as detailed in the historian Sally Hayden’s 2003 book, Slave Patrols.

What freedom could mean

Cora never finds her mother Mabel, who has preceded her in escape. She loses some of her companions, inadvertently betrays others, such as the clueless abolitionist Martin and his wife Ethel, who help her against their will. Yet the precious knowledge that she has gleaned on the way will stand by her.

These are things beyond those she learns in the rudimentary school set up by earnest whites in South Carolina, things she sees and understands for herself. For instance, the fact that the plantations symbolising American wealth lie on “stolen land” (from native Americans) and worked on by “stolen hands” (the slaves), or that the future too might be stolen from the blacks, and that poetry and prayer were really of little use.

“Versifying left her cold. Poems were too close to prayer, rousing regrettable passions. Waiting for God to rescue you when it was up to you. Poetry and prayer put ideas in people’s heads, that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world.”

In her long journey to escape, Cora understands some truths about how the world works, the insidious principles of power at play. From her time to ours, Cora – and Whitehead too – brings the realisation that no matter how difficult it might be, the journey to freedom begins with the need to be (self-)aware, to see the world for what it is, in a clear-eyed way.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead, Fleet.