The Undeground Railroad (Colson Whitehead)

I’ve been seeing The Underground Railway on book lists for what feels like years, but I never wanted to read it enough to buy it on kindle or paperback, and there were always other things to read from the Library. I picked this off the work shelf (which is a bit like the library, I was supposed to return it weeks ago) and I’ve been working my way through several books at once. My Goodreads is getting a little crowded. I really should finish Order of the Phoenix as well, come to think of it. Anyway! Onto the book ramble.

Title: The Underground Railroad
Author: Colson Whitehead
Published: 2016
Format: Paperback (Work Share Shelf)
Pages: 306

I have seen this book on many a list since it was released. It’s an alternative history of two slaves in Georgia, Cora and Caesar, who make a bid for freedom using the Underground Railroad. It was powerful, and incredibly well written, and might be the few Pulitzer prize winning books that I’ve read.

It’s written in the third person, mostly from Cora’s point of view, but sometimes from the people who help or hinder her along the way. The timing isn’t fixed either – sometimes the narrative takes a step backwards or sideways to explore what happened to one of the other characters – like Ridgeway and how he became a slaver, or Caesar when he is at the plantation and decides to invite Cora to run away with him.

I read this book in fits and starts, but because it sometimes slips between times and people, it was relatively easy to follow over time. I am honestly not sure how to review this book. It was well written, it was emotional, it was incredibly powerful, but it does not lend well to one of my usual styles of review. In Underground Railroad, you’re introduced to characters and given a snapshot of how their lives have linked to Cora, and Cora to theirs. Cora is distrusting and the sentence structure can be blunt and to the point.

There is unrelenting violence and the concept of the Underground Railroad as an actual, physical railroad with trains, stations and safe houses was interesting, rather than the reality of the “underground” meaning resistance, and the “railroad” terminology being used to discuss the safe routes and houses along the way. The novel also re-imagines two violently different reaction to slave abolition in North and South Carolina and the gruesome reality of each state.

There were parts of the book where I lost the thread of the narrative, pages where it felt like information was being given or someone was soliloquising for the sake of it – but for the most part, this was a compelling and powerful read about slavery and freedom in America.



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