Saturday, 18 November 2017

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
First published in America by Doubleday in August 2016.

Featured in Cover Characteristics: Railways

How I got this book:
Borrowed the book from my partner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Praised by Barack Obama and an Oprah Book Club Pick, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead won the National Book Award 2016 and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2017.

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. All the slaves lead a hellish existence, but Cora has it worse than most; she is an outcast even among her fellow Africans and she is approaching womanhood, where it is clear even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North.

In Whitehead's razor-sharp imagining of the antebellum South, the Underground Railroad has assumed a physical form: a dilapidated box car pulled along subterranean tracks by a steam locomotive, picking up fugitives wherever it can. Cora and Caesar's first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But its placid surface masks an infernal scheme designed for its unknowing black inhabitants. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher sent to find Cora, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

At each stop on her journey, Cora encounters a different world. As Whitehead brilliantly recreates 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 the story of one woman's ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shatteringly powerful meditation on history.

I know I am late to the party in reading The Underground Railroad! I wanted to let some of the hype fade in the hope of not being overly influenced and then disappointed. I think my scheme worked - I certainly did enjoy the novel.

I hadn't previously realised the nuances of various American states attitudes and laws concerning slavery and black people's place in society. Whitehead's device of Cora journeying to a number of different states allowed me to see far more than the South=slavery, North=freedom divide that I had imagined from previous Civil War novels I have read. I was impressed by his research and the authenticity of the locations and scenes described. As historical fiction, The Underground Railroad does a fantastic job of bringing this era of American history to life.

I wasn't convinced at first by the imagining of the Railroad itself as a real railway network. However as the novel progressed I could appreciate the idea more and felt that it did fit well within the story. My only lasting gripe is that I didn't think Cora was a real a person as she needed to be. Surrounding characters were more strongly defined and, for me, Cora often felt like a shadow or a space than a genuine woman living through these experiences. We are told a lot about her thoughts and aspirations, but I thought the woman herself was kept too distant and aloof.

Overall though, The Underground Railroad was an interesting and very readable novel. It depicts a place and time I thought I knew, but in such a new way that I realised there is still a lot more to learn. Well deserving of its hype!

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  1. I made a comment here a while ago but I don't think it posted! I was so eager to read your review and compare it to my own thoughts I had on the book. We had entirely similar thoughts and I agree with you in every manner. I found it most intriguing for what I learned about how slavery and its impacts and conditions changed across the states, but wanted more of a connection with Cora too.

    1. I wondered if Cora would have been presented differently had Whitehead been a female author. I had exactly the same issue with my next read, Henning Mankell's A Treacherous Paradise.