The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

"If you want to see what this nation is all about, I always say, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you'll find the true face of America."

Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad has taken the publishing world by storm. It began as a surprise selection for Oprah's book club nearly one month before it was slated to be published. In a logistical feat, the novel was on the shelves shortly thereafter and began its reign as a commercial and critical juggernaut. The book was voted in as a historical themed selection for The Next Best Book Club's monthly discussion on Goodreads, a discussion that I'm leading all month long. This provided me the perfect excuse to dive into Whitehead's novel and see what all the hype is about.

The novel opens in the Antebellum South on the Randall Plantation, a farm known more for its appalling treatment of its slaves than the harvest they produce. Cora is no stranger to those horrors. She's grown up as one of the Randall's servants and seen how the mistreatment of her peers gives the Randall brothers a sick pleasure. This goes beyond simple punishment. It is not uncommon for slaves to be summoned for a beating as a form of entertainment for the brothers and their guests. Whitehead writes of this sadistic torture with detailed descriptions that make no attempts to shield readers from the unabashed vulgarity of this history.

Miraculously, Cora clings to the hope that one day she will escape the bonds of the Randall Plantation. It seems like an impossible dream, especially when she's seen the brutal executions of those who tried to escape in the past, but Cora has a secret weapon. Years ago, Cora's mother escaped the plantation and was never heard from again. Even the famed slave catcher Ridgeway was unable to find her. Cora is bitter that her mother left her to fend for herself, but she clings to the thought that if her mom could escape, she can too.

Cora's dreams come to fruition when another slave, Caesar, tells her of his plan to leave. He has made contact with a man who can grant the pair access to the infamous underground railroad. In Whitehead's world, this is not merely a network of brave abolitionists, but an actual railroad built in tunnels across the US. Leaving the plantation marks the beginning of a journey that is even more perilous than the unenviable life of servitude. With each stop on the railroad, Cora faces new obstacles that cause her to question the price of her own freedom. On a deeper level, Whitehead seems bring into question what true freedom even is.

The Underground Railroad is novel of contradictions. It is rich in its bleakness. It is a novel that is difficult to read, but impossible to put down. Whitehead constructs his story in a version of history that serves as a metaphor for the treatment of African Americans. His focus on a single character allows him to merge the expansive history of injustice into a story that is more easily absorbed. As such, the action of Cora's escape works on two levels. One, as the story of a thrilling cat and mouse chase between slave and slave catcher, and two, as a larger portrait of systemic racism. The Underground Railroad is a masterful novel that is sure to spark passionate discussion and debate for years to come. I rarely provide a universal recommendation of a novel to readers of different tastes, but I will not hesitate to do so with this one. Read this book!

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 31)

This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 18, 2017 and is filed under ,,,,,,. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response.

2 Responses to “The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead”

  1. I've seen this on several blogs and I'm pretty sure all have recommended it. I'm going to have to put this on the list to get from my local library. Sounds like a good read.

    1. I don't always enjoy the Pulitzer winner, but that's not the case with this one. It is engrossing, clever, and timely.


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