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.
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.