The Underground Railroad [Book Review]
Title: The Underground Railroad
Author: Colson Whitehead
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Published Date: 2nd August 2016
Rating: 3 stars
Synopsis: 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.
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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