Review: The Underground Railroad

by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad


Title: The Underground Railroad
Author: Colson Whitehead
Publisher: Doubleday
Book: Standalone
Genre: Historical Fiction
Found: Oprah’s Book Club 2016 Selection / The Manbooker Prize Longlist 2017 / The Library
Rating: 4 Voodoos

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.

- Goodreads

It’s been a really long time since I wrote a review so please bear with me. This could end up a complete car crash but I really want to get back into reviewing and the only way to do that is to try… so here we go…

The Underground Railroad isn’t my usual reading material, as some of you may know, but as I’ve been struggling to get into anything recently I thought I’d have a look at a few of the manbooker prize nominees (because they must be nominated for a reason right?). The Underground Railroad caught my eye because it’s made quite a few different lists this year, including Oprah’s Reading list, and it sounded really interesting.

I’m ashamed to admit that my knowledge of American History, The Slave Trade and Black Rights is very very limited. In fact this is probably the first book I’ve read that focuses on all of these things rather than just mentions them, and I was truly shocked. The Underground Railroad is a brutal, harrowing and at times, stomach turning look at this part of American history. It followed the life of Cora, a girl born into slavery on a cotton plantation in Georgia, and her attempt to escape with the help of those few brave souls running the underground railroad.

In this story the underground railroad wasn’t just a metaphorical idea but an actual train system. I thought this was a really clever re-imagining. Each time Cora disembarked the train she found herself in a different state with different rules and attitudes toward the black community. Some places were worse than Georgia but others appeared much better. It was interesting to see how each community acted towards her. I presume these attitudes reflect different timeframes in actual history but, as I said, I don’t know enough of the real history to say for certain.

I found Cora to be a rather cold character. At no point during the story did I feel like I knew her. I suppose I felt more of an observer than usual. I can imagine this doesn’t work very well for some people who like to feel a connection to the characters but I didn’t mind so much. I think it might have been too hard to read if I could feel and understand all of her pain. It was hard enough as just an observer.

Cora wasn’t the only character that we heard from. Every now and then we were given glimpses from other narrative perspectives. For me, some of these worked, like those from her grandmother at the beginning of the book and her mother at the end as they gave a good insight into Cora’s history, but others didn’t. In fact they kind of threw me out of the story a bit especially when they were completely out of sink (time wise) with the main narrative. (ie Caesar’s story).

Other than that I thought the writing was brilliant and the story engaging. I will definitely be doing more research into American History and looking out for more by Colson Whitehead in the future.

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