The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

If I’d not already written my Best Of 2016 list, I would have included Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad near the top.  I started reading it December 27 and deliberately held off on finishing it until it was January 1 so that it would be the first book I finish this year.  It will undoubtedly be in my top ten for 2017.28250841

You’ve heard a lot about this book, probably.  Oprah picked it for her book club, even moving the publication date up to do so.  It won the 2016 National Book Award.  It was Amazon’s editors’ pick for #1 book of the year.  You’ve seen it on just about every critical book list.  And sometimes all that acclaim can make a person weary of a book before they’ve even picked it up.  Too much hype.  I know, I have done this myself, avoided a book because too many people love it.  I’ve also avoided books that I feared might be too difficult for me to handle emotionally, which is what I suspected about this one.  Well, I’m here to say that I was wrong.

Is this book sad?  Yes, of course; it’s about slavery, one of the worst, most degrading and cruel periods of human history.  But is it an unrelenting misery-fest?  No.  It’s one of the most suspenseful works of literary fiction I’ve ever read.  I started it late at night; before I knew it I was fifty pages in, and I had to make myself put it down and go to sleep.

I was immediately taken with Cora, the young slave at the center of the book.  She is a marvelous character, an eleven year-old orphan on the Randall plantation in Georgia when her mother, Mabel, runs away.  She is sent to the slave shack with the women who are “not right” in some way, either through accidents of birth or traumatic injury.  She keeps her grandmother Ajarry’s small garden plot at all costs, as it represents the only sense of agency and freedom she has in the little time she has to herself.  She hates her mother for leaving her in the night without saying goodbye.  A violent incident one night at a plantation slave gathering, in front of the plantation’s cruel new owner, leads Cora to accept an offer made to her by another slave, Caesar, to run away with him. Throughout the course of the novel she exhibits an indomitable will to survive, and through her eyes we see some of the worst ways humans mistreated one another in the past 175 years.  All the while she is being pursued by the relentless slave catcher, Ridgeway.

The mosquitoes and blackflies persecuted them.  In the daylight they were a mess, splashed up to their necks in mud, covered in burrs and tendrils.  It did not bother Cora.  This was the farthest she’d ever been from home.  Even if she were dragged away at this moment and put in chains, she would still have these miles.

You’ve no doubt heard that the Underground Railroad in the book is not just a metaphor for the network of people and structures that sheltered and shepherded runaway slaves, but an actual railway system built underneath the land of the southern states.  Whitehead has created a dazzingly original work, playing not only with historical fact but also speeding up and slowing down time in the places that Cora eventually ends up.  It’s difficult to talk about the plot very much without giving away page-turning twists and turns that reference some of the 20th century’s great injustices to African Americans as well.  I’ll just say that where this book went surprised me.

I’m profoundly glad to have read this, and want to encourage others who may be reluctant to pick it up.  It’s simultaneously a masterful work of imagination and a harrowing portrait of the real horrors of slavery.  But it’s also just a really good story, engaging and captivating, with a fierce, very human heroine at its center.  I rooted for Cora, I hurt for Cora, I didn’t want to leave Cora.  What a marvelous way to begin my 2017 reading.

Have you read this?  Do you plan to?  I’d love to know your thoughts.

 

 

 

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33 thoughts on “The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

  1. We even started reading it on the same day – December 27th! Ha! Excellent review, thank you for writing it! Whitehead is an incredible writer and now I want to gobble up the rest of his work. The twist of having an actual railroad underground was brilliant; it allowed the reader to escape from reality for just a moment while we were being hammered with all of the harsh realities of being a person owned by another human being. I am going to try to write some of my thoughts about it in the next few days, but I know that I won’t be able to articulate all of them. You’ve done a great job with yours!

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  2. I was eagerly awaiting your review for this book! So glad it was your first of the year. 🙂 I will go into the book knowing that it’ll be difficult to read at times, but I will power through regardless because it sounds powerful and important. I’m also not a stranger to reading heart-wrenching books and other slave narratives, so I’ll be OK. I definitely want to see what all the hype is about for myself!

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    1. Yes, and Katie made a good point about the more fantastical elements of the story sort of letting the reader absorb the hard stuff more easily. For a book with heavy subject matter, it’s incredibly entertaining (which sounds weird to say, but it’s true.)

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  3. I am feeling somehow deficient since it seems everyone loves this book but me. I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t love it. Seems like your reading for the rest of the year is going to have a lot to live up to!

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    1. You know, I read another blog review recently from someone who liked it, said it kept him turning pages, but he didn’t think it was worthy of all the awards and praise it’s gotten. So you’re not alone! Yes, I started out with a bang, so I hope that my next few books don’t suffer in comparison. 🙂 The one I’m reading now it getting better as I’m nearing the end (Anita Brookner’s A Friend From England.)

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  4. I got this and Homegoing for Christmas from my sister. I’m really looking forward to them both — I’m planning to read them in February. I’ve heard mixed reviews of Underground Railroad, so I’m thrilled you liked it so much!

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  5. I always wonder how horrifying a slave novel can be after I read Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Those books, both autobiographies, were horrifying, and I read them in college. I’ve since taught them, too. There is a part in Douglass’s book that is so magnificent, so chilling, that thinking about it sends a shiver up my spine. Both books are very short, too, if you don’t have much reading time. In terms of Colson being inventive, I’ll have you know that in elementary school I thought the Underground Railroad was totally an train under the ground, thus I thought of it first! *smh*

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    1. Ha ha! I guess he’s probably got some competition with grade-schoolers then on that front! 🙂 But there are some other twists that are inventive for a slave narrative, in my mind. I’ve not read either of those autobiographies, but I probably should. Maybe this year! Both would certainly fit my nonfiction and diversity goals. Thanks!

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  6. Will definitely pick it up at some point since the railroad intrigues me. The last book I read with a heroine who was also a slave was The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez. It also had so many layers to it aside from the slavery discussion which she escapes before becoming a vampire.

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  7. This is another book that I was supposed to read last year. I have heard so much about it and it was also on the list of Obama’s favourite books. I can’t wait to read it soon now especially after reading your review. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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  8. I wish I had known more about the shifting times and locations that were utilized – do you think that is accurate. I think you said, “playing not only with historical fact but also speeding up and slowing down time in the places” because I let it distract me and was constantly bothered by trying to figure out when it was set.SO sometimes my going in totally blind does not serve me well. I really do want to reread it after appreciating the TOB commentary. I am also keen to read Whitehead’s The Intuitionist.

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    1. Have you read any other Whitehead novels? I think because I’d read John Henry Days and The Intuitionist, I was prepared for weirdness in his storytelling. He definitely plays with “speculative” fiction, mixing fact and fantasy. So I wasn’t thrown too much by the shifts in time and location. It wasn’t really time so much as “modern” inventions and experiences in the different locales. The Intuitionist is a strange book, kind of noir mystery and speculative fiction and racial commentary all at once.

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