Sunday, November 13, 2016

Book review: The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

In the antebellum era, Cora, a teenager born into slavery on a Georgia plantation, agrees to flee with a literate new arrival, Caesar, and head north with him to freedom. Cora had been a particular target of Terrance Randall and his overseer due to her brave defense of a fellow slave, and because her mother had successfully escaped five years earlier. At every step along her route, a slave tracker hunts her down.

“A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality.” The same holds true of each stop Cora makes along the underground railroad, creatively imagined here as a literal set of subterranean tracks on which trains carry their desperate passengers somewhere else – anywhere else. Cora’s harrowing experiences in different states reflect not only African-Americans’ pre-Civil War lives but also the bigotry and racist violence they faced in later historical periods – today included.

Most works of literary fiction (as this one is) offer deeper characterizations than is shown here, and some readers may be frustrated at the lack of emphasis on Cora’s inner feelings. However, the writing follows in the authentic style of historical slave narratives. Cora’s tale unfolds in direct, unembellished language that reads quickly and allows for no ambiguity.

As a highly anticipated title by a prominent author, and as an Oprah pick, this novel will be widely read and discussed – as it should be. It’s heartbreaking, occasionally brutal, and undeniably relevant. It also deserves more than one reading. Cora is an immensely courageous heroine, and the novel’s underlying sense of hope lies not only in her determined quest for liberty but in the many individuals, both named and unknown, who risk their lives to help her achieve it.

The Underground Railroad was published in September by Doubleday in hardcover ($26.95/C$34.95, 320pp).  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review, thanks to a NetGalley copy provided by the publisher.

11 comments:

  1. I really need to get around to reading this!

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    1. It's not an easy read, emotionally, but very much worth it. Hope you get a chance to read it!

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  2. Sounds so very heavy, but good reading as well.

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    1. Yes, it is both of those things.

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  3. I read this soon after it came out, after listening to the author interviewed on the radio. A terrific book! And the idea of "what if the Underground Railroad really WAS a railroad?" tickled me. That last scene was sad, though...

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    1. I thought the very end was fitting, and hopeful, but there was a scene before that that was extremely sad. I hadn't been expecting it, but maybe should have.

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    2. Yes, that's the scene I meant. Sorry!

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  4. I thought that not emphasizing Cora's inner feelings allowed the author to focus on what was happening from a more removed POV.

    Funny, you suggest one more reading. I checked it out of the library twice to do just that.

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    1. Yes, I agree - the author's decision to tell Cora's story that way worked very well.

      After finishing the book the first time, I skimmed through it again before writing the review, but I feel like I should read it again, more thoroughly.

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  5. So far I haven't had the heart to read this after living within it for researching Slave Coast, and then touring Slave Coast, for so many years. And talking talking talking about all these matters with so many African Americans for whom none of this is abstraction.

    I want to read it, but so far haven't made it so.

    And now -- lordessa save us.

    Anecdotally only, the most angry people I know right now are youngish to going into middle age women who own their own (generally very small) business. The most frightened I know are all African American women who have / had children and grandchildren. Even more frightened than various latinos and muslims in our circles.

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    1. I understand not wanting to read the book for a while after being immersed in the subject for so long.

      Your anecdotes reflect what I'm seeing as well. We have many worried students on campus, and battles playing out in chalk messages on many of the sidewalks.

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