The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

whitehead-cover

Summary from Goodreads:

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish 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 and, 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. 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.

I have to admit, I was a bit wary going into this one – I’ve read quite a few slave narratives (both fiction and non-fiction) in the past six months and, obviously, they can be more than a bit emotionally draining.

That being said, Whitehead’s writing drew me in right away and despite my familiarity with these kinds of narratives it still had the power to shock me with its evocative descriptions of the brutality of the slave trade.

The most interesting aspect of Whitehead’s novel has definitely got to be his imaginative take on the Underground Railroad as he literalizes it. I would’ve loved to see more of the narrative built around this idea. Unfortunately, for both Cora and the hopeful reader, no matter how far north she goes she doesn’t make it any further away from atrocity, prejudice, death or torture. It is hard to imagine anywhere in America where she might be safe or feel at home. Don’t look here for a happy ending.

Whether in the fields or underground or in an attic room, America remained her warden. (pg 172)

Whitehead often includes references to historical events outside of Cora’s experiences such as the Tuskegee Experiments, Nat Turner’s rebellion, and the Freedom Trail. I am encouraged to read more non-fiction about this period of history.

All in all, a very solid read. Although, admittedly, not one that particularly stands out.

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