The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is going to sound ridiculous, but I don’t care: Oprah bullied me into reading Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Do I know Oprah? Of course not. Have I ever met her? She’s on my vision board, so we’ll see. How did she bully me? you ask. Because up until I saw the white, round sticker with a capital O, the telltale sign of a book being declared an Oprah Book Club selection, on the red cover of the novel, I had resolved that I was not going to read it, at least not yet.
If I recall correctly, The Underground Railroad was a bestseller before Lady O put her stamp of approval on it. At the very least, I know I had read about it several times. Whitehead won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for it. Even so, I didn’t want to read it. I was hoping and wanted to take a break from reading and watching slave narratives. I know, I know: these stories are important, need to be told, shared, read and watched, especially because there are so many ignorant and ill-informed folks out there. I’m not in denial about the horrors or even the existence of slavery. I don’t act like it never happened. I’m definitely not one of those people who believes we should “get over it” because it was so long ago. No.
I just wanted to take a break from it. It’s disappointing that it’s now the true horrors of this nation’s early beginnings are being told in full and more accurately than before, at least in the mainstream. I devour books, articles and documentaries when I learn about them. With the social climate being as tense as it’s ever been in my lifetime, I wanted to read less oppressing stories. I failed in that notion because the book I read before The Underground Railroad was The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Not to mention, I subscribe to The Root’s daily e-newsletter. There’s no escaping the heavy stories, but thank goodness, there are happier, feel-good stories out there as well.
Oprah has never steered me wrong, so when I saw the book with the Oprah sticker on the cover at the library, I tucked it under my arm. I can’t even remember the book I went to the library to get. I knew that Whitehead was set to appear on at least two panels at this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival. I wanted to be able to follow the conversations. My protest of not buying the book morphed into I’ll just borrow it from the library.
That’s not completely true. I’m trying to slow down my book purchasing and save money by way of purchasing less books. If there’s an author that I already know and love, I will definitely purchase the book—in paperback, which means I have to wait a year. Although Colson has published several other books, I’ve never read his writing.
As one might guess The Underground Railroad takes place during slavery times in America. It spans across two continents, several states and three generations. The reader is introduced to Ajarry, the African born grandmother of Cora, the protagonist of the story, who is born into slavery in America.
When Cora is still very young, her mother Mabel abandons her on a Georgia cotton plantation to seek freedom. The assumption by all is that Mabel successfully made it via the Underground Railroad. Orphaned, Cora is left to fend for herself on the plantation. Years later, when approached by Caesar, an educated slave, to also run away, Cora at first declines, thinking he believes she’s a good luck charm being the daughter of an uncaught runaway. After being asked more times, she agrees. Thus Cora’s post-slavery journey begins.
What’s different about Whitehead’s novel about slavery is that the Underground Railroad is an actual, physical series of tracks, tunnels, stations, and conductors. This makes for an interesting spin in the novel, and one that at first confused me while I was reading. It made me question what I thought I knew about the Underground Railroad, which I had learned about in grade school, courtesy of a brief lesson on Harriet Tubman.
Even with the Underground Railroad being portrayed as an actual train system, the events and benevolent people Cora and Caesar encounter as they transition from slave to free person from Georgia, South Carolina then North Carolina are plausible. I appreciated that Whitehead opted to omit graphic, gruesome and gory details of beatings, whippings, and rapes. Of course it would not be an accurate depiction of slavery if he didn’t include the severe abuses, punishments and killings of slaves and their sympathizers endured at the hands of the slave owners and their supporters. Like I said before, I needed a break from such storytelling. Whitehead mentions the incidents without dwelling, and focuses on how the characters are affected afterwards.
The chapters tell the background stories of other characters, such as Caesar who escaped with Cora, and Ridgeway, a ruthless slavecatcher who obsessively makes it his life mission to track down Cora long after her escape, especially after his failure to find Mabel years before. The focus of the saga always comes back to Cora, who assumes a new name and identity, and even begins to learn how to read and write. Whitehead does a great job of making the reader feel apprehension, anxiety, fear, and even happiness with and for Cora as she experiences new events in her life.
I didn’t doubt that I would like The Underground Railroad. After all, it’s won several awards and was an Oprah Book Club selection. But I am surprised by how much I liked it. I embarked on reading it with a closed mind and apprehension, but Whitehead was able to paint a picture of slavery that was familiar, but unexpected, and made me wonder about the characters, especially Cora, when I wasn’t reading it, much like I sometimes wonder about the real slaves that I often learn about in nonfiction books and documentaries.
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