The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Published by Fleet, 2016
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 picked up this book because of all the hype, so I knew it was likely to be a ‘meh’ read for me as I tend not to like overhyped books. And unfortunately I was right.
Now that doesn’t mean that this is an awful book. I really really loved parts of it. The characters were gorgeously written and you would have to be a monster to not empathise with Cora. It is undoubtedly an important book, one that educates about the true horrors of slavery. And it is inventive and clever. And traumatic. The underground railroad as a physical thing is an exquisite imagination, a powerful metaphor for the ‘underground railroad’ that exists in history. But, and I am loathe to say this … I found parts of the book to be really boring. I adored Cora’s story, but when the narrative strayed away from her the story lost it’s oomph for me. I know (many!) others disagree, and I love that they do.
I’m glad I read it. Parts of it were almost too emotionally difficult to read (which is a good thing, in this case anyway, I feel). But it just lacked … something that would’ve made it an amazing read for me. 3 stars