Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Publisher: Doubleday
Release Date: August 2, 2016
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s Description:

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.

The Underground Railroad imagines a world in which the Underground Railroad, the system used to smuggle slaves from the Southern slave states to the Northern free states, is an actual railroad. It follows a slave named Cora on her journey out of Georgia on the Underground Railroad. Colson Whitehead has made each stop a real-life location with fictional attributes. For instance, South Carolina appears to be a virtual utopia for former slaves integrating into white society. However, something sinister lurks behind the scenes. Even though some things about the stops are fictional, they are still realistic and based in fact. Whitehead does not shy away from writing about the horrors of slavery and how slaves were treated. All of the primary characters in this book are richly developed and multi-faceted. There are no white savior or happy house-slave stereotypes.

The Underground Railroad was my book club’s November selection. We found much to discuss, including whether or not we would have had the courage to escape slavery. There’s a lot of symbolism in this book and we talked about what our interpretations of it are. Since symbolism can go over my head at times, (it’s my accountant brain!), I appreciated being able to hear what others thought of it.

Colson Whitehead and this book have won many awards. It also made President Obama’s 2016 Summer Reading List. Ah, to have a president who reads…But I digress…Whitehead has written several other books and they are each supposed to be quite different from one another. I plan on reading them at some point – I’m sure they’re wonderful too. At any rate, I highly recommend The Underground Railroad for everyone.

  • S.G. Wright

    Oh nice review. You got to this book before I have. I’m still planning on reading it though I’m behind everyone else’s reading of it. It sounds like it lived up to the hype for you. It’s been so popular over the last 2 years!