Author: Colson Whitehead
Published: August 2, 2016 by Doubleday Books
Genre: Historical Fiction
Hardcover: 306 pages
My Rating: 3 1/2 stars
Cora is a young slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. An outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is on the cusp of womanhood—where greater pain awaits. And so when Caesar, a slave who has recently arrived from Virginia, urges her to join him on the Underground Railroad, she seizes the opportunity and escapes with him. In Colson Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor: engineers and conductors operate a secret network of actual tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora embarks on a harrowing flight from one state to the next, encountering, like Gulliver, strange yet familiar iterations of her own world at each stop. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the terrors of the antebellum era, he weaves in the saga of our nation, from the brutal abduction of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is both the gripping tale of one woman’s will to escape the horrors of bondage—and a powerful meditation on the history we all share.
When this book was published in 2016, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction was just one of the many awards it won that year. It also ended up on everybody’s book list from Oprah’s to Barack Obama’s summer reading list. Colson Whitehead takes the underground railroad metaphor and turns it into a fascinating slave story, making it an actual real railroad from which slaves could escape through these tunnels. Being that the title is “The Underground Railroad”, I thought most of the tension would come from escaping through the railroad. Turns out the real danger was hiding out in plain site in the town they decided to settle in, and hoping slave catchers don’t catch up with them.
The underground railroad still plays a huge part in this story though. It’s a railway that runs from Georgia to way up north. Each station stop is run by a ‘station agent’. Sometimes the station agent’s house is on top of the hole that leads to the underground. Sometimes on a farm, but all these locations are hidden, and run by white people who believe in the abolishment of slavery. At each of these stops a runaway slave can choose to stay in a particular state, or keep moving.
I loved the way he was able to explore different aspects of our history at each stop on the railroad. At the stop in South Carolina, colored people are still being controlled by the white man, just in a different way. The jobs they work in are primarily domestic or factory work. They sleep in dormitories. The women are encouraged to have their tubes tied for ‘birth control’, and they’re being used in medical experiments. At the stop in North Carolina our protagonist, Cora is hidden away in a small corner of a family’s attic, reminiscent of Anne Frank.
Throughout the story is the ominous presence of a big, burly slave catcher named Ridgeway who is obsessed by his failure to capture Cora’s mother Mabel, from years ago, and now Cora herself.
Whitehead’s style of writing takes a little bit of getting used to. Some of the sentences he strings together are very lyrical, but don’t make for the most flowy reading experience in parts. He also tends to drop characters into the story without a lot of background, but rest assured, he usually goes back at some point to fill in the blanks a bit.
It did get to a point where I really wanted to find out what happens to everyone, especially Cora. She felt so real to me – I wanted to know how things turn out for her. Yes, the story is violent and humanly degrading in parts and there are plenty of offensive words, but it wouldn’t be telling the story authentically if it was all rainbows and sunshine.