Published by Doubleday on 2016
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Fiction, Literary, African American, General
Reading Challenges: 2017 COYER Summer Reading List
Buy on: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks
The Newest Oprah Book Club 2016 Selection
From prize-winning, bestselling author Colson Whitehead, a magnificent 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 hell 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--Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. 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. And 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.
Like the protagonist of Gulliver's Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey--hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. 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.
“Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.”
The Underground Railroad by Colton Whitehead has been on my TBR list for forever, but since I rarely read about serious topics I kept putting it on hold. The story centers around a young slave woman named Cora who flees Georgia along the Underground Railroad. But unlike the true railroad, this railroad actually has trains on its tracks. Author Colton Whitehead imagines a world where a slave can travel north to freedom along an actual rail that stops in cities that seem like another world to Cora. Through Cora’s travels, Whitehead explores the various atrocities that have been committed to African-Americans since the beginning of their enslavement. From the Tuskegee syphilis experiments to the forced sterilization of African-Americans, he ties in these horrors from the past that did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. These crimes resonate in today’s political climate and serve as a reminder that no matter how far we’ve come, we haven’t come far enough.
I have to admit that when I began this novel I found it difficult to get into. Maybe it was all the hype that surrounded this book causing my hopes to be blown out of proportion, or maybe it was the confusing way Whitehead wrote the story. After 65 pages, I discovered I had no feeling towards Cora as a character and was quite confused by the story’s timeline. After attending my book club meeting earlier this month, I discovered I was not alone. Many of the women didn’t enjoy this novel for the same reasons I wasn’t, but still, I decided to finish the book. I’m glad I did. Everyone’s complaints against the book actually helped me lower it from its pedestal and look at it with fresh eyes. Once I did, I realized that the aspects of the story that previously bothered me weren’t as annoying as they once were.
“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.”
Though I never really connected with any of the characters, I still found the book to be enjoyable because I realized that the story was a universal one. Cora’s trials and tribulations weren’t unique to her. They were the same trials that affected all who were ensnared in the horrible condition of slavery. Whitehead also shined a light on the fact that African-Americans haven’t progressed as much as one would like to think. Throughout the years, whenever blacks have begun to build something for themselves, whites have worked to destroy it. Though many whites have aided in the Civil Rights movement, the scars from long ago have become entrenched in black consciousness. The United States was built on the backs of slaves. Slaves have built the economy just as they built the foundations of the roads and buildings. The systematic racism that has allowed the US to become a World Power is so ingrained in American society, that there is no way to wrench it free without dismantling the entire system. No matter whether this is a new topic of study for you, or not, Whitehead gives his readers something to ponder long after the book is finished.