The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Publisher: Little, Brown Group
Publication date: 29 June 2017 (paperback edition)
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This is a spoiler-free review.
The Underground Railroad has been on my radar since its publication in 2016. It received pretty much all of the good press a book could get – it was one of the titles in Oprah’s book club, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award, and was named as one of the books Barack Obama read while in office. It’s a departure from a lot of the books I’ve been reading these days, but I knew I had to pick it up.
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood – where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor – engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven – but the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.*
I don’t want to say too much about the plot, because I do think it’s one of those books in which the story has the greatest effect when you truly discover it on your own. The Underground Railroad follows Cora, who changes and evolves as she follows the literal underground railroad from Georgia, to South Carolina, and beyond. The tone of the book also changes as she sheds her identity as a slave and begins to think and act more like a free woman. The book feels almost impersonal in the beginning, as Cora has walls up to protect herself against the horrors she has experienced and continues to face. There are side characters, but we don’t know much about them. As she makes her way further along the underground railroad, these walls begin to crumble and we get more information about these other characters and form an emotional connection alongside Cora. Her story is sprinkled with interludes that explain the backgrounds and motivations of the people she meets and who either help or hinder her on her journey. This was one of the most brilliant parts of the book for me, as you really get a sense of Cora’s pain and guilt over the course of her journey and character arc. By the end, her walls have come down and Cora’s burden is so tangible.
This is a book that manages to be both gut-wrenching and hopeful. Cora is an incredible character that should be admired for her strength and resolve. The brutality and injustice of American slavery are laid out in The Underground Railroad – not just in the way that slaves were treated but how white citizens turned a blind eye or joined in on the brutality. The Underground Railroad is a book that should be read widely and will prove to be an important work of fiction of our time and political climate. It is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Have you read The Underground Railroad? Is this on your list? Let me know!
*Copy courtesy of Goodreads