There has been a lot of buzz surrounding The Underground Railroad (2016) by Colson Whitehead. It was, of course, on my most-used book list this year: NPR’s Best Books of 2016. But just in case that’s not enough, it also won the Pulitzer Price and the National Book Award. I’d heard a little bit about it before reading it, and I have to say I wasn’t sold on it. A real underground railroad during slavery? I couldn’t understand why Whitehead would feel the need to add that fantastical element, or what it could possibly add to a story about slavery. Fantasy isn’t my favorite genre, and arbitrarily making up fantastical elements to historical fiction didn’t make any sense to me. I was afraid it would be one of those highly touted, but difficult to read or understand novels that I would not be able to appreciate.
Fortunately my fears were unfounded and Whitehead’s novel worked very well for me. Cora is a young woman and a slave living on a brutal plantation in Georgia. When conditions get even more dire, she agrees to run away and leave the plantation. Caesar, a newly arrived slave has connections to the Underground Railroad–a real railroad that has buried tracks throughout the North and South, with the ability to bring them to freedom. Their escape does not go as planned and Cora ends up desperately killing a young white boy as they flee. Ridgeway, a notorious and relentless slave catcher haunts their steps.
Having a working underground railroad worked for me. Whitehead did such a good job with his descriptions of the railroad that I was interested in reading about it, even if it wasn’t true. Also, Cora and Caesar’s desperate escape attempts were so engrossing and disturbing that the railroad was the least of my worries. I also saw the railroad as an instrument that allowed Cora to experience a number of different places and people that may not have been possible on foot. The reader gets a wider view of the United States and the experience of slaves within it by using the railroad. It’s impressive that Whitehead managed to make it work as smoothly as he did.
Cora and Caesar first stop in South Carolina where they gain some freedom in name before realizing that there are other frightful circumstances hidden beneath their relatively comfortable lives. She moves from state to state, experiencing many of the different kinds of horrors available to slaves and Black people at the time. Perhaps the most heartbreaking moments were those when I thought Cora might have finally found a safe place only for some other barbarity to break out.
Whitehead spent some time developing his characters. The reader gets to know Cora’s mother, and how her mother still affects her as she makes her own way North. Even Ridgeway, the slave catcher, is given his own perspective. Not only was this novel a riveting, disturbing page-turner, but it was also very moving, memorable, and informative. This is one book that deserves its many awards.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.