The Underground Railroad [Book Review]

The Underground Railroad [Book Review]

Hello Catastrophes!

Title: The Underground Railroad

Author: Colson Whitehead

Publisher: Doubleday Books

Published Date: 2nd August 2016

Rating: 3 stars


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30555488Synopsis: Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood – where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor – engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven – but the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

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Review: Tricky. That is the only way I can describe how it feels to write this review. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is a complex, very hyped novel which is about a woman attempting to escape slavery and her past. She does this by traveling along the underground railroad. And while I must admit that I learned a lot from this novel, I still feel like there was a bit of emotional distance which shouldn’t have been there and that there was something… lacking. I’ll explain in the rest of the review.

One thing I can say for certain is that Colson Whitehead knows how to write. This novel is beautifully written and he knows how to weave a story together. The author uses different points of view, and the right words to bring across what messages he has in store for the reader. I wouldn’t be able to say this is a ‘fun’ read because it runs deeper than that, but it is a book which is written in a way that makes it easier to read but craftily woven as well.




I especially appreciated how we are able to see so many different perspectives in this novel. Although the story mostly focuses on Cora and her journey, occasionally we get a stolen chapter from another person’s perspective. We dive into the mind of the slave owners, the slave catchers and the ones who help the slaves runaway. I think it was so relevant to see all these perspectives because we get to see what has shaped these people into who they are. Sometimes the slave catchers are driven by the way they grew up, and sometimes it is pure spite. Sometimes the people are willing to help, and sometimes they feel obligated without actually wanting to be helping the slaves. All in all, it shows us how there were so many conflicting mindsets around the same issue: slaves did not want to be slaves anymore.

Whitehead also crosses many different themes in this novel. The one that stood out to me most was the questioning of what freedom means. We get to see and join Cora on her journey when she is born into slavery, her time as an adult slave, and her time as a runaway. But sometimes, even after running away, she feels freer than others. Other things are still trapping her, while in some ways she is as free as she will ever be. It really made me question as a reader what the true definition of freedom is, and if slaves in her time could ever actually achieve it.




The other theme that I wanted to mention was that of the past. Slavery is a traumatising personal history to have, and it raises the question of whether your past defines you, will forever impact your future in ways we cannot fathom, or whether it might be something that subconsciously holds us back. I didn’t find answers to those thoughts when reading, but I feel like the novel encourages you to find them yourself.

This book is explicit in terms of recounting the tortures or horrors that befell slaves at the time. It is important to remember, because it is part of our history.

BUT at the same time, this is where the biggest issue I found with this novel comes in. I was missing the emotional connection. It’s not like I didn’t care about any of the horrors that was happening – I knew they were terrible and were probably what people in history experienced and that is why my heart hurt. But at the same time, I didn’t feel a deep relation to any of the characters. Not even Cora, the main character of the story, at any time. I felt like we as readers were held at an arm’s length. Sure, the story was being told to us and events were being recounted. But it sounded so matter of fact that I wasn’t feeling the emotional immersion I was expecting, and wanting to feel when it comes to a book of this topic.




In the end, the story that resounded with me most in the book was Mabel’s. Mostly, it was built up due to all the thoughts driven toward, or about her in the novel. But I can only say that much, because I don’t want to give anything away to those who haven’t read the novel yet. (Those that have, you might know what I mean.)

The ending of the novel was alright. It wasn’t an open ending, or a closed ending, but it was conclusive to the story. Because in the end, we have only joined Cora for a bit of her journey in life, and at the end of the book we are parting ways. We are not there for her entire journey of her life. And that’s just how things go sometimes, so I feel like it worked well with the novel.

Relevance to today: I am going to try and include a section in every review where I see if there is a link between the book and situations today. I believe that the link here is racism and discrimination. Maybe black people aren’t slaves like they were in the past in the current day, but discrimination is still a current issue today. It is impossible to overlook it and say otherwise, and hopefully with a novel such as this one we can see how far we have come from the past, and see in which ways we still have room to improve.


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Gif Summary:

Found on Popsugar

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New Video! Top 5: Black Figures I Would Love to Meet.


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Links: Get the book on Goodreads or Amazon!

Olivia’s Question: If you could meet any black celebrity/figure, dead or alive, who would you want to meet most?

Olivia-Savannah x

29 thoughts on “The Underground Railroad [Book Review]”

  • I have this book on my shelf, Olivia, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I’m glad you enjoyed it, and that it brought some light to the situation of slaves, and the underground railroad, even if you didn’t fully connect with the characters.
    Lovely review 🙂

    • I hope you’ll be able to enjoy it whenever you do get around to reading it. I might not have connected but I think the value in this one lies beyond the enjoyment of the story. I know I learned a lot from it, and I think that’s the main intention the author was going for.

  • While I disagree that there weren’t connections to the characters, I can definitely see where your coming from. I feel like the enormity of the situations they were in sometimes overshadowed more traditional character development. That being said, I often felt like I was right there with Cora. As always, you provide a thoughtful and layered review!

    • I am glad this book worked more for you than it did for me. I just was missing that extra relation that managed to come across for other readers. But I do agree – I think the situation was of more importance here than the character development sometimes. Thanks for reading and commenting, Ethan!

  • Sounds like an interesting book. I love when I read HF books and learn new things. I think your pictures are very creative. Also- I love how you included the new section about how the book is relevant to today. This sounds like a book I should read. So- adding it to my list. Thanks!

    • Yes, I think we can learn so much through historical fcition and I definitely did! I’m glad you like the new section – I just have to remember to keep on doing it 😉

    • Yeah… it was the one thing which was missing to make the book great 🙁 It was quite upsetting that I didn’t feel it, but some other readers have told me they could, so I am glad it isn’t everyone!

  • I think at some point I’d like to read this book. The thing you say about emotional distance doesn’t surprise me – I’ve noticed literary books do this quite often somehow. But this book does have a very interesting concept.

    BTW, you have the coolest hairdo ever 🙂

    • I think even though it wasn’t amazing, it was still very good and I still would recommend it to people! And you’re right – it’s something a lot of literary books end up doing. I wonder if occasionally it is intentional and meant to be telling us something…

      Thank you, Evelina <3

  • I audiobooked this one (that’s my new word for it, lol,) with the BBC Radio 4 adaptation – which was awesome!

    I get what you mean though, it’s a tricky book to wrap your head around.

    I like the way Whitehead decided to turn the metaphorical underground railroad into a literal one – I have no idea what the ins-and-outs of *that* symbolism are, but I thought it was pretty clever! XD

    • Ooh, I don’t really do audiobooks but I am happy to hear you managed to enjoy the adaption! It is a book which takes a lot of thought and piecing together – it’s a truly a literary work. ^.^

  • Ohhhh, I love the “Relevance to today” section. Somehow, I have this disconcerting feeling that the world is getting more angry. Maybe it’s just the current state of politics in my country. But, I do feel an alarming sense of unrest in the world. And, discrimination is less censored and more voiced. Sigh. Great bookstagram photos!

    • I’m really looking forward to including it more in future reviews! Yes, I get that feeling as well – more people are speaking up when they’re not satisified with something. Thanks, Lonna <3

  • Great review! This sounds like a good book but too bad you didn’t really connect with it emotionally. I haven’t really considered it before since it is an Oprah book and I don’t tend to care for those. I may have to give this one another look.

    • I wanted more of that connection but it was good. I didn’t know anything about this one being an Oprah book! I don’t really keep up with all that >.>

  • It sounds like the POVs were used really well to delve deeper into the issue of slavery. And that’s great that the book didn’t spoon feed you lessons but rather just made you think and find some answers yourself. I can see how lacking emotional connection would be a problem though :-/

    • Yes, the author knew how to intertwine all the different perspectives to really add to the story. I learned without having to be directed all the time. It was the biggest shame about the missing emotion 🙁

  • I’ve got this book on my Kindle to read and am just waiting for the hype to fade away so I’m not so influenced before I start. My OH was impressed and loved the writing style so I’m looking forward to reading.

    • I’m usually just like you! I get the hyped book when everyone is talking about it but wait until the hype has died down somewhat before starting for myself. I hope you’ll be able to enjoy it 🙂

  • Great review Olivia!
    I totally agree with everything you said especially the emotional connection. I read this a while ago and thought it was good but the the hype it was receiving.

      • Yes, I think the hype around it is a bit overrated, but then again if it won the Pulitzer Prize I am sure there is no way of avoiding the hype at all. It was still a decent read and I am glad you agree with me 😉

    • I think mixed is the general consensus? Even though I wouldn’t stay I enjoyed the novel completely I still feel like it is worth reading because I learned so much from it.

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