CBR11Bingo – AWARD WINNER: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction AND the National Book Award
This was not what I expected. Nearly everything I read or heard about this lauded novel focused on the unusual conceit at its heart, that the “Underground Railroad” we’re all familiar with from history was not a metaphorical railroad, but a real one, with locomotives and tracks and all the accouterments. Based on that I was expecting magical realism akin to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I was, at least, expecting a book about the railroad. But Whitehead’s novel curiously keeps this intriguing premise deep in the background. The railroad makes only sporadic and desultory appearances in the story, and frankly it’s literalization has no bearing on the plot at all. It’s a little bit like if an episode of Friends claimed that the show was taking place within a totally realistic simulation of New York located on the Moon, and that this made the show science fiction, even if the simulation were entirely irrelevant.
Instead, Whitehead’s novel focuses on the plight of Cora, a young woman born a slave on a Georgia plantation. Her mother having run off without her when she was just a child, Cora has grown up resenting her own mother and the institution of slavery. Talked into making an escape attempt of her own, Cora winds up traveling across a great deal of the country, much of it by the titular railroad, always just a few steps ahead of the slave-catchers.
What Whitehead excels at is in depicting the horrors of slavery in an unflinching manner. Through Cora’s travels Whitehead is able to pick up slavery and examine it from a multitude of angles and portray the dehumanization and humiliation it compels. He makes the reader stare right into the rot in the heart of America and dares you not to look away. For whatever faults the reader might find in other aspects of the novel, it is still a useful corrective to so many of the false narratives about slavery that still abound over 150 years after Emancipation.
For all that good and necessary work, however, the novel itself falls short as engrossing literature. Cora is not much of a main character, her personality traits are under-developed and perfunctory. Other characters are similarly sketched in. Whitehead also oddly will bring up a character seemingly at random who hasn’t appeared in the narrative for a long time, and to do so obliquely.
On a more basic level, I also found Whitehead’s prose to anodyne and flat. I understand that lyricism would not have matched the weightiness of the subject matter, but Whitehead’s sentences, though rarely clunky, are rarely memorable either.
Because of Whitehead’s daring look at a serious subject, The Underground Railroad is a worthy read that I’m sure will be assigned in schools for years to come. For me, though, it just doesn’t achieve the literally greatness I was hoping for.