Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead

Summary: Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood - where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead's ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor - engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar's first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven - but the city's placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates 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 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. (Summary and pic from

My Review: I will, at some times in my life, be moving along and not really be aware—aware of history, aware of events, aware of things that I should be aware of. I do a lot of reading (or at least I try to) to expose myself to these things. Many times I’m aware of what I’m reading about, and indeed I will often pick books that involve something I’m interested in or a historical event I know something about and would like to know more about. Sometimes, however, I am caught completely off guard.

I am not unaware of slavery nor the underground railroad, nor the atrocities that these things brought to pass. I am aware of the racial struggles that continue even today in a nation with a history such as ours (and not just American history, BTW). But I think the thing I found most jarring about The Underground Railroad was just the sheer day-to-day terrors and atrocities and almost hopelessness that afforded slaves during this time.

The Underground Railroad is a book that combines historical fiction with a bit of a twist, that twist (and I’m not giving anything away here, this can be read in the description of the book) is that the underground railroad is an actual railroad with rail cars and trains and engineers and such. While this does add a bit of a twist to history, it doesn’t change what happened in the past and really just provides a mechanism and easy metaphor for what each railway station (i.e. slavery and attitudes of the residents towards those slaves) is like in the different stations it stops. I found it to be a creative way to move the story along and cover a lot of ground physically.

As mentioned above, the violence in this book is really quite difficult. I will often read while eating if I’m alone, and there were times that I couldn’t actually read this book while eating because it was so disturbing. This almost never happens, by the way. It is just so difficult to imagine people treating other people the way that some of the slave owners treated their slaves. It was horrible. I don’t enjoy reading about violence, and especially violence inflicted on children or babies, but every once in awhile I force myself to read a book that will bring reality back. I don’t go hunting for violence, but I try to vary my historical fiction from things where people are falling in love across time (which I don’t really read) to actual historical fiction, some of which is not as rosy as others. I don’t want to be too careful or too complacent in my day-to-day life. I want to remember what it took to get where we are—not only so I can be grateful and keep perspective, but also be aware of what could happen should not all be vigilant and continue moving towards more justice, more love, more freedom, more understanding. I believe this is just such a book—it will jar you out of your complacency and definitely be uncomfortable at times. But I find it to be one of those books that is worth the read, and a book that will force you to put yourself in the shoes of another, not just to more fully understand their plight, but the plight of us all.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is violence in this book, but it is not gratuitous. 

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