The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

2016
08.12


What if the Underground Railroad was actually a REAL railroad? That’s the question author Colson Whitehead asks in this allegorical historical fiction about one slave woman’s quest for freedom in a twisted version of America that is both fantastical and horribly real. Cora is only a teenager. But she feels a thousand years old, due to the brutal living conditions she must endure as a field slave on the Randall plantation. When another slave named Caesar asks her to run away with him, she refuses at first, thinking of how her own mother escaped the plantation and left her alone to fend for herself. But after she is savagely whipped for trying to save a child from being beaten, she decides she has nothing left to lose. Through an abolitionist network, Cora and Caesar are given passage on the Underground Railroad, a secret subterranean railway that carries runaway slaves across the Southern states to freedom. But not always safety, as the two soon discover. Instead of the liberty she imagined, Cora instead experiences nightmarish scenarios at each stop that mirror actual historical events, from insidious medical experiments to celebratory Friday lynchings. And all the while, she is being ruthlessly stalked by the slave catcher Ridgeway, who has sworn to bring her back to Randall no matter what, because her mother was the only slave who ever escaped his clutches. Each time Cora thinks she has found a place of safety, it is viciously snatched away. Does she have any chance in this merciless world where black girl’s lives are worth less than a crate of rum? Cora may just be a teenager. But she is also a survivor.

This beautiful, devastating novel may have been published for an adult audience, but the powerful, precise prose reads like a timeless classic that should be experienced by everyone over the age of 14. I have no doubt that this book will find it’s way onto hundreds of high school reading lists and college syllabi by the end of next year, alongside the writings of Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson. But despite it’s insta-classic feel, readers can also easily draw parallels between Cora’s endless trials and our current racial and social ills, including Stop and Frisk, hate speech and anti-immigrant rhetoric. While this book often made me soul sick, I couldn’t wait to finish it to discover how Cora’s extraordinary journey concluded. And because The Underground Railroad is the latest pick for Oprah’s Book Club, you should have zero problems getting a copy asap from your local library, bookstore or on your e-reader. Want more? Listen to this outstanding interview between Colson Whitehead and Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.

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Jen Hubert Swan
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