Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

undergroundrailroadAbout The Underground Railroad

• Hardcover: 306 pages
• Audio: 10 hours
• Published: August 2016 by Doubleday
• Source: Purchased (Scribd Audiobooks)

Goodreads Description: 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.

My Thoughts

I knew I wanted to read The Underground Railroad even before it won the National Book Award for fiction last year. There was so much press around the book, for one thing, and for another, it sounded interesting. I listened to it on audiobook, which I highly recommend.

It wasn’t exactly what I expected, though to be honest, now I can’t tell you what I expected. I guess less backstory and more…thriller? More about the journey itself along the railroad. But that was me assuming it was a “Point A to Point B” journey, which is most definitely NOT the way the story unfolds. That’s a good thing though – the book was much more character-driven, and it’s easy to see why Whitehead won the NBA.

In some ways, the Railroad is used as a metaphor, though it’s much more complex than that. I’ve struggled trying to explain it, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. Cora’s journey isn’t an easy one, but the tension is a slow burn rather than a raging inferno. The final resolution is enough to satisfy, yet doesn’t entirely smooth over what’s happened. It’s a masterful blend of emotions. I found myself humbled, angry, and inspired all at the same time.

Perhaps that’s what makes Whitehead’s story such a great one – the emotions it inspires in the reader. You don’t pity Cora, because she’s too strong to be pitied (and she wouldn’t have wanted it anyway). But you can’t help but hurt for her, and you can’t help but mourn those who weren’t fortunate enough to make it on the Railroad.

There are implications here, gentle warnings about how we treat those who are different from us. About the society we’ve been, and could be again if we’re not careful. About how easy it is to let fear and prejudice rule us. And about how there will always be those who fight for equality, no matter the cost.

4 stars

 

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