Book Review: The Underground Railroad

Friday 7 April 2017 by

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead, Fiction, Reading, Book, Doubleday, Little Brown

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Published by Doubleday Books

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell 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 – Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. 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. And 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.

Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey – hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. 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.

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This book, while not Whitehead’s first, is perhaps one of his most acclaimed – with both Oprah and Obama listing The Underground Railroad as an essential read. So it had some big expectations to reach. I was moving house at the time of reading this – L had given me her copy as she was away for two weeks – and so most of my reading was done sat on a bare floor in an empty flat as I waited for deliveries. I would listen to folk music and read in a cold flat, and hours would dash by in a flash. The Underground Railroad has claimed that indefinable top spot as “one of the best reads in years”. I was sad to return the book.

I have to admit that I know very little about the slave trade and the Underground Railroad (thank you, British education system), and most of my learning has come from books like Roots, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild, and 12 Years a Slave (please don’t see the film, read the book!) Reading The Underground Railroad, therefore, feels all at once familiar – with its recognisable backdrop, all-too-familiar stories, and bittersweet taste – and alien, crossing in to that unknown territory of something new but also something never attempted before.

Whitehead chooses to follow the story of Cora, who escapes a cotton plantation in Georgia, and tries to make her way to freedom by way of the Underground Railroad. In this imagining, the railroad itself exists – complete with steam engines and tunnels and station platforms. It was partly this surreal twist that initially drew me to the book. But it was everything else that made me stay.

Cora is not the most sympathetic of characters – she wavers between hard and uncaring, to passive, to strong and passionate. It’s hard to get a grip on who she really is as a person because she is so protective of her identity. You get a clearer image of the others she comes across than you ever do of her. However, I found myself warming to her quite quickly – she is clear-minded and determined, powerful when pushed to it, and sharply intelligent. Some chapters follow other characters, but it is Cora’s story that makes this book come to life.

Each stage of her escape feels like the last. But in the same way as you know certain characters can never die in films, you are absolutely certain that Cora will survive. That they all will survive – including Caesar, who does unfortunately seem doomed from the start. But just as you are certain of the happy ending, there is something to make you all question it again. The balance between the placid and the perilous is the turning of a page. There is no comfort between these pages, and although there is hope, there is also fear and anger.

Whitehead’s writing is devastating. The unsettling familiarity of the story – influences such as Solomon Northup’s testimony are clear – is sharply contrasted against this steampunk-like twist with subterranean railroads. Cora is hurled in to a bitter fight and flee, shards of the Real Life jabbing out mixed with elements that invoke the fantastical, making it all feel unreal. It is almost like those incredibly convincing dreams you can have, where it makes total sense that people can fly, because everything else is just the same.

It is a thrilling read – both profoundly upsetting and endlessly entertaining – with a poignant finale that will haunt you for weeks. I haven’t read any Whitehead before, but it feels so easy to read. Despite the nature of the subject, there is something light and winsome about his style of writing – something at ease on the page. Perhaps that is why this is so good at telling the uncomfortable and upsetting truths. Cora’s story – minus the real-life trains – is not a new one, it is not a unique one, and it is something we must face up to. I don’t expect this book to lead the way in that, but I believe it is the beginning of the conversation. It is beautiful and shattering all at once.

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