The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead


My Review:

In The Underground Railroad, Cora is a slave in the early 1800’s working on a plantation in Georgia.  She is an outcast, has been abandoned by  her mother, and has been asked by Caesar, an educated slave, to travel on the underground railroad to escape slavery and the horrible conditions.  Ridgeway, the slave catcher is in hot pursuit of Cora as she is on the run and travels to other states by train.  In each location black people are treated differently; in Georgia the slaves are needed to work on the plantations, in South Carolina the black people are free to work and have homes yet they are secretly being sterilized so as not to grow the population.  In other states the white people are afraid of being outnumbered so they want to kill all the black people.  The horrific examples of torture and attitudes of white people are based on history, and the gory details are unapologetically presented throughout the narrative.

This was not a fun book to read. Graphic descriptions of torture, oppression, beatings, murders and struggle are uncomfortable, but it is crucial to know our attitudes and actions of the past, that it is remembered and never repeated.  Author Colson Whitehead was effective in portraying history, but did not create characters I could connect with; I was rooting for Cora but I did not tap in to her emotional state or feel what any of the other characters were feeling.  I was disgusted and upset with how people were being treated but I was disconnected from their hearts. I am not sure if the author wanted the reader to feel Cora’s anxiety when she was on the run, or her sadness, but it was interesting for me to read a book about slavery, such an emotionally charged topic, and not shed a tear.  I wonder if the author were a woman writing from Cora’s perspective would my reaction have been different….if I were black would I have related to and empathized more with the characters emotionally?

The element of magical realism, the actual underground railroad, is a clever way to depict how the slaves escaped and traveled from place to place, but for me it created more questions.  The idea was developed a bit, the trains were unpredictable and they stopped in random states, train stations were manned by people who helped the slaves hide, but I wanted to know how the system was built, who dug the tunnels and laid the tracks, it was a physical system in the land…how did slave owners not know about it?  I prefer the magical realism in Exit West by Mohsin Hamid where the idea of doors leading to other countries is not developed any further that a brief explanation but serves the purpose of transporting the characters to another time and place.

The Underground Railroad is an important book that depicts history; a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award Winner, it has been recommended by Barack Obama and is an Oprah’s Book Club 2016 selection.  Read it at your own risk.  Would love to know your reaction to the book so feel free to comment.


As seen on Goodreads:

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.


About the Author:

I’m the author of the novels Zone One; Sag Harbor; The Intuitionist, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award; John Henry Days, which won the Young Lions Fiction Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Apex Hides the Hurt, winner of the PEN Oakland Award. I’ve also written a book of essays about my home town, The Colossus of New York, and a non-fiction account of the 2011 World Series of Poker called The Noble Hustle. A recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur Fellowship, I live in New York City.

My latest book, The Underground Railroad, is an Oprah’s Book Club pick.

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