Upon picking up The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, I knew only a few things: 1) Obama AND Oprah picked this book as a Must Read for 2016. 2) It won both the National Book Award AND Pulitzer Prize. 3) I was intimidated by the prestige, hype, and content of this book. I wasn’t certain I would be able to appreciate this book in the way it was intended. The Underground Railroad surprised and delighted me. In the end, I couldn’t be happier this book has been written. A wonderful tale of both horrors and courage, The Underground Railroad resonated with me in ways I never expected it would.
Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth.
I have read about and studied the Underground Railroad before. Always, these stories shocked me with their cunning, bravery, and courage. But I realize now that all of those stories pale in comparison with the truth. While Whitehead’s story is fiction, and frequently embellishes or takes from real events, it is no less powerful or terrifying than other stories featuring escaping slaves. I frequently had to pause the audiobook to calm myself and get my thoughts under control. While these events were not directly real, they all happened in some way, shape, or form, as they came from Whitehead’s extensive research of slave stories.
A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality.
In Whitehead’s tale, a slave named Cora escapes her plantation in Georgia and embarks on a thrilling tale to find freedom. In The Underground Railroad, escaped slaves actually travel on a real underground railroad. It’s like a child’s fantasy when you are only able to understand things literally. Trying to catch trains, finding conductors, and escaping slave catchers, Cora embarks on a journey similar to Gulliver’s Travels. At each stop, each state and city, she finds a seemingly completely different world with different rules and different expectations.
If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America. It was a joke then, from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.
Reading this book felt like reading magical realism. I adore magical realism. The idea of an actual train traveling underground with escaped slaves popping up and having to re-learn how the world works at each stop fascinated me. It gave Whitehead the opportunity to explore many different aspects of a potential America. For example, in Whitehead’s South Carolina, the white citizens were progressive and welcoming their black brethren into the community. Only,
All men are created equal, unless we decide you are not a man.
This narration style really worked for me. As the story progressed, we learned more and more of Cora’s past and pieced together the history of this alternate-universe America. I’ve read people stating the story would be more powerful if it was a first-person perspective, instead of third. More powerful, but for me, it would have been unreadably raw. From this third-person perspective, we get to watch Cora grow and learn about the world beyond the plantation. The deviations from true history were jarring at first for me, but I feel it suited the purpose of illuminating this important history. Strangely enough, Whitehead’s interstitial moments and chapters where characters other than Cora were explored didn’t ever feel jarring. Reading advertisements offering rewards for escaped slaves, as well as chapters focusing on characters who only briefly touched on Cora’s life, showed that the scope of this tale is far beyond the boundaries of Cora and her exploits. It added a depth and gravity I would never have known otherwise.
Cora didn’t know what ‘optimistic’ meant. She asked the other girls that night if they were familiar with the world. None of them had heard it before. She decided it meant trying.
While I do agree that The Underground Railroad is an incredible tale, I found that at times it could come across in a manner reflecting my least favorite social studies teacher–where I was being simultaneously lectured and pounded over the head to acknowledge America’s massive sins. I understand why this could be intentional coming from Whitehead, but it ground the narrative to a halt for me when I ran into these moments. And they popped up all over the place.
The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.
For example, Cora waxes eloquent at one point about the atrocities the white man did to the native population. We a lectured about the grueling details of the Trail of Tears and how it parallels the treatment of blacks. Or a description of miles and miles of tree-lined road filled with hanging black corpses dubbed “the Freedom Trail” in mockery of the true Freedom Trail in Boston. Or the description of a Georgian dinner party where white attendees sat and ate their dinner while watching a black man burned alive. All described in great detail and with great moral judgments against those obviously in the wrong. I just… I felt a bit numb by the unrelenting horrors and lectures on how to act like a civil human end of the story.
This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.
A tough and worthy read, Whitehead’s tale bravely explores the physical, social, and psychological wounds slavery inflicts and did inflict upon American society. Reading The Underground Railroad won’t be a light and fluffy adventure story, and it might lecture a bit, but it certainly should have the honor of being read by you— particularly if you enjoy literary or AU historical fiction. I won’t be picking up Whitehead’s works again soon, but I will certainly be reading them in the future!
What do you think?
- Have you read The Underground Railroad? Did you enjoy it? Why or why not?
- How do you feel about an underground railroad in the literal sense? Does it appeal to you?
- What was the last book you read which lectured you about ethics and morality?
- What other Colson Whitehead books would you recommend I read?