Wow. Poignant, vivid, and gut wrenching, this is one of the most powerful books I have ever read. In fact, it’s so good that Oprah (who has ALL THE POWER) picked it for her book club and worked her magic. As a result: The Underground Railroad dropped into bookstores like a surprise Beyoncé album five weeks ahead of schedule, and it’s clear the literary community agrees with me and Oprah: this is a must-read for all Americans.
The publisher’s summary (shortened):
From prize-winning, bestselling author Colson Whitehead, a magnificent, wrenching, thrilling tour de force chronicling a young slave’s adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South.
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves, but Cora is an outcast even among her fellow Africans, and she is coming into womanhood; even greater pain awaits. Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, and they plot their escape. Matters do not go as planned, but they manage to find a station and head north. . . .
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.
Reimagining U.S. history, master craftsman Colson Whitehead transforms the metaphoric Underground Railroad into a real train and “a secret network of tracks and tunnels built beneath Southern soil” (from the full publisher’s summary). This slight departure from reality was brilliantly portrayed, enhancing and in no way detracting from the gravitas of this book and its subject matter. I read this in a single sitting and was so immersed that, for the most part, I forgot about this unhistorical addition entirely. It just seemed a natural part of the route. This tweaking of history was what initially drew me to the book and created increased interest and intensity in some pivotal scenes—not that The Underground Railroad suffered from a lack of either of those things.
“Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavors—if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.”
The writing in this book is, in short, incredible. Perhaps the most affecting aspect of The Underground Railroad for me was the matter-of-fact way Whitehead relates the horrendous violence of Cora’s life as a slave. Whitehead’s depiction renders the terrible injustice of her life as almost normal—and, tragically, it is to Cora and to the white masters who think nothing of whippings and “taking her behind the shed” (where she is obviously but not graphically raped). I cried within the first twenty pages and again and again throughout this novel. Whitehead pulls no punches. And I’m glad. This is an ugly, tragic part of our history that deserves a clear portrayal of the horrors it entailed.
“To see chains on another person and be glad they are not your own—such was the good fortune permitted colored people, defined by how much worse it could be any moment.”
The main character, Cora, gives a name to the countless individuals whose lives and liberty were ripped from their grasp during the years in which America perpetrated this institution. Whitehead portrays everything from the extreme violence slaves endured to the smaller indignities, like being robbed of the one thing Cora had that was hers (a garden plot) and evicted into the cabin of outcasts when her mother abandoned her to run away. Her trials continue beyond the plantation, unfortunately, where she and Caesar find that the freedom they so desperately long for is always just out of reach.
“[Cora] trusted the slave’s choice to guide her—anywhere, anywhere but where you are escaping from.”
Amid all the devastating twists and turns in this novel, the most horrifying thing about this work of fiction is the inescapable truth that lies beneath. And this history plagues our country to this day. While slavery is abolished, we are still a divided nation in a devastating state. Racial violence. Police discrimination. #BlackLivesMatter has become a well-known movement. How tragic that 150 years after slavery was abolished, this statement is even necessary.
Is there hope for racial reconciliation in America? I don’t know. But I hope and pray that there is. That we can look within and realize that the same blood flows within all human beings. That compassion will triumph over perceived differences. That we can truly become, perhaps for the first time, “one nation, under God.”
I leave you with this sobering quote:
“And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes—believes with all its heart—that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”
Here we are.
***I received an advance copy of this novel via netgalley in exchange for an honest review.***
**********This last bit contains a SPOILER!!!! **********
I loved the ending of this book. It is fitting that we are left without knowing Cora’s fate. We simply leave her at the start of another leg in her long, terrible journey. We can hope that she survives, but we’ll never know. Like so many black men and women before her, she vanishes from the written record. But we need to remember her. To remember them all—now more than ever.