THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD Review

The Underground Railroad (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel - Colson Whitehead

Synopsis: 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.

 

*****

 

This is a book about hope, redemption, and darkness in the real world. It's a brutal read, and it made me cringe more than once. Not because of bad writing or unbelievable characters or forced dialogue — no, Colton Whitehead has created an almost perfect novel in The Underground Railroad, a work I am sure will soon enough be deemed a modern classic. Hell, it's even an Oprah's Book Club book. That's, like, everything.

 

This is the story of Cora, a teenage slave who runs away from the plantation in Georgia she's been sold to. She embarks on a journey of highs and lows, of wonder and terror. Whitehead does an astounding job of conveying her confusion and awe once getting off the Railroad (which, in the book, is an actual train — a nice touch, I thought) the first time. The reader knows that once Cora has a taste of freedom, she will never go back.

 

I'm going to keep this review extremely short, because I can't even begin to put into words the profound impact The Underground Railroad had on me. The author carved out a gem with this one. He handles a touchy, horrific subject such as slavery (and, with that, rape and murder) with great care and skill. Young Cora's journey to the north is one I will not soon forget. I really can't recommend this one highly enough. Check it out if you're into historical fiction or just a really good story populated with well-drawn characters. I will be checking out more from this author!

 

This book is my 'diverse author' selection for Halloween Bingo. (I slacked off on Halloween Bingo during September. I will remedy that in October.)