The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

In brief: Cora is a slave on a plantation in Georgia. After meeting Caesar, they both escape using the Underground Railroad. But it’s not an easy ride, no matter which stop…

The good: Incredibly powerful and interesting.

The not-so-good: Very brutal in places – really shows the damage humans can do.

Why I chose it: Sounded interesting – plus I know little about the Underground Railroad.

Year: 2016

Pages: 306

Publisher: Fleet (Hachette)

Setting: USA

My rating: 10 out of 10

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is one of the most powerful and affecting books I’ve read for quite some time. I was interested in this book because: a) I’m an Aussie and I know little about the Underground Railroad, b) Dawn in the Babysitters Club had a secret passage which was meant to be part of it and c) it sounded like it would be interesting (I love learning history through fiction). Rather naively, I didn’t expect this book to be so brutal and emotional. But it is, and shows both sides of humanity from the good to the extremely bad.

Given that Oprah has put her stamp of approval on this book (note to self: read more Oprah’s choice books, because she knows a good read), I don’t know how much I can add to the other reviews out there. But if you’re interested in history and/or African-American culture, you need to read this book. For me, it took what I knew of America’s South pre Civil War (99% of which was from Gone with the Wind), challenged it and broke my delusions to pieces. The book is violent, it is brutal, but most of all it is eye opening. Slavery is unfair, idiotic and demeaning.

The book’s main character is Cora, whose grandmother was taken away from her African home and sold into slavery. Cora’s mother is somewhat of a legend amongst her owners – the only slave to run away and not be caught. This puts Cora in an awkward position – her owners dislike her and amongst the other slaves, she’s an outcast. Cora is determined to be herself and act independently, even if it means getting thrashed when protecting a child or the only thing she can call her own (a tiny garden plot). So when new slave Caesar suggests escape, Cora declines (after all, all it got her mother was a bad name) but the seed is planted in her head. She doesn’t refuse a second time.

So the journey starts on the Underground Railroad – depicted as a real railroad, with engines and carriages. (I liked this touch. I felt it was sticking it to the slave owners by utilising such new technology for the greater good of all human beings). Each stop brings something different. Initially there’s freedom, but sometimes it is just an illusion for stronger restrictions that just hide in the shadows. Just as the journey appears to ease, Cora is forced to flee. There is always a hidden danger, someone lurking or bad sentiment spread. With each stop, Whitehead reveals new elements of the kindness of people, as well as their selfishness. I couldn’t help but cheer Cora on, willing, hoping, praying that she would make it to somewhere where she could be herself without watching over her shoulder.

Colson Whitehead is a brilliant writer. The Underground Railroad is not a thick book, but it evokes scenes, feelings and emotion with just a few words. His prose perfectly describes Cora’s pain and when the narrative turns to other characters, explains their motives so well that you feel you’re seeing another side of them entirely. His writing is powerful and never falters – I can honestly say that there no unnecessary words or scenes here. It’s plotted like a masterpiece. Simply put – it’s a must read.

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