Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted. Their 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.
Much has been made of Whitehead’s decision to literally interpret the Underground Railroad as an railroad running underground, which transportation system facilitates Cora’s escapes throughout the novel. Setting aside my qualms as a scientist (there’s simply no way they could vent a system of caves that expansive), I get that the image of Cora travelling through dark, dangerous tunnels works as an effective metaphor. However, it also works as a narrative ploy for avoiding long, repetitive chapters of flight across perilous countryside, which is - coincidentally or deliberately - convenient.
After a relatively short (but realistically fraught) journey, Cora is able to reach the city in South Carolina, where social schemes to accommodate a biracial population seem to offer a paradise. You don’t have to squint, however, to spot the clues that this “paradise” is merely a veneer: blacks are still economically exploited (“company stores” ensure that workers are permanently indentured by debt) and viscerally objectified (justifying the local hospital’s policy of covert sterilization).
Compared to her life on the plantation, this might still seem like an acceptable compromise – which may explain (to my mind) the greatest weakness of the book: the character of Ridgeway, the slave hunter. Much has been made of the psychological authenticity of the characters portrayed herein – how the horrific events in Cora’s life undermine her ability to trust, how a cruel version of “Stockholm Sydrome” seduced blacks into actually working in tandem with white slave catchers. Ridgeway, in contrast, is a spittin’, swearin’ spaghetti western bad guy whose obsession with catching and killing Cora may help move the plot along (it’s Ridgeway’s conveniently inconvenient appearance that eventually dislodges Cora from South Carolina) but who sticks out among the palatte of other nuanced characters like Nancy Drew dropped into the middle of Macbeth to solve the king’s murder. (Yes, Whitehead gives us the irony of Ridgeway’s father believing in a “Great Spirit” that unites all living things, but this only makes Ridgeway’s one-dimensionality even more jarring.)
Alas, Cora’s next disembarkation in North Carolina strips away even the pretense of veneer, landing her in a horrific town where the slaughter of blacks is the stuff of Sunday picnic entertainment … literally. The state has passed a law banning blacks; anyone caught in the state is hung off of trees along miles of road dubbed “The Freedom Trail.” A la Anne Frank, Cora huddles in an attic for months before being discovered by the relentless Ridgeway, who then proceeds to lose her again, allowing her to escape to her third destination, Valentine Farm, a free black commune in Indiana.
Safe at last? Of course not, but first there’s time to relax a little and explore the complex perspective on slavery put forth by the preeminent black abolitionists of the day. Should blacks try to “earn their place” in society by embracing the rule of law, or do they collectively have a duty to help each other to freedom? While readers are still pondering this impossible ethical quandary, white neighbors raid the compound, killing almost everyone except Cora, who lives long enough to square off with Ridgeway one last time. Wearily she endures, this time conducting herself towards the hope of freedom, having learned that while the universe may be cruel and perverse, “hope” is the one thing that remains firmly in our grasp.
This has been compared to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and this is an important insight. For all the novel's emotional authenticity, large parts of this are deliberately hyperbolic, with a thick, creamy topping of irony. North Carolina never banished black people, and I'm pretty sure the South Carolina social experiment is an invention as well. A road of hanged men dubbed “The Freedom Trail”? A slave named Homer who jots down the phrases in a notebook as he journeys? Yellow fever and cholera physically blighting a landscape already psychologically decimated by racial hatred? Setting Cora up a “living exhibit” in a museum’s display on slavery? At one point, someone says “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.” This is brutal and impactful, as are the exampled noted above … but also an artful rhetorical trick, a fallacy of composition, arguing that something true of a part must be true of the whole. Whitehead’s implied thesis – that since slavery is evil, the U.S. must be evil – is affecting but, like all good Swiftian prose, perhaps more accurately interpreted as exaggeration for effect.
As an important work of fiction, I’ll willingly give this five out of five stars. I’m a firm subscriber to the “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it” school of pessimism, and this definitely works as a devastating reminder of the barbarism of slavery. As a work of literature, perhaps four out of five stars – the writing is competent but nothing flashy. As a work of entertainment – where does one even begin? It’s like asking someone if they enjoyed Hurricane Katrina: you’re mesmerized by the horror of it, captured by the human tragedy of it, but does that qualify as entertainment? I think, in this case, I may have to justify the time I spent reading it utilizing a different set of metrics.
I had read three of Colson Whitehead's previous books without much success: on upper-middle-class black life (uneven); on zombies (tedious); on poker (baffling). His writing often seemed too clever by half: long on gimmicks and surface style, and short on substance. I wasn't sure I was willing to give him another try. So, despite the awards and critical applause for THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, I approached it with some trepidation.
So I was pleased to find it such an original and incendiary novel. The raw, unflinching power of his book took me by surprise.
Before starting THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, I had recently read Drew Gilpin Faust's thoughtful study of death in the Civil War, THIS REPUBLIC OF SUFFERING. Her book isn't about slavery per se, but for obvious reasons it plays a part in her narrative. She quotes a letter to an abolitionist newspaper in 1864 from T. Strother:
"To suppose that slavery, the accursed thing, could be abolished peacefully and laid aside innocently, after having plundered cradles, separated husbands and wives, parents and children; and after having starved to death, worked to death, whipped to death, run to death, burned to death, lied to death, kicked and cuffed to death, and grieved to death; and, worst of all, after having made prostitutes of a majority of the best women of a whole nation of people . . . would be the greatest ignorance under the sun."
It was with thoughts like that already swirling around in my head that I began THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD. I've read many books on American slavery, both history and fiction. Whitehead's depiction of the evil of that "accursed thing" is one of the most powerful I've read. We see the effect on slaves and slave-owners; fugitives and slave-catchers; free blacks and poor whites; Northerners and Southerners; abolitionists and apologists; heroes and cowards and villains. Character by character, and story by story, he shows us how slavery contaminated everyone and everything in this country.
Reading Whitehead's novel makes it easy to understand radical abolitionism, and the rage and anger expressed in the letter quoted above: the evil and horrors of slavery must be ended, one way or another, even if it takes the evil and horrors of war to accomplish it. Perhaps we take that notion for granted now, but it was anything but consensus in mid-nineteenth-century America.
So, yes, Whitehead's novel is very violent, sometimes shockingly so. But I think it's a necessary violence. There's real power in the hellish, almost surreal vision he's created. His book is at times like a terrifying Hieronymus Bosch painting: the stuff of nightmares. There's an angry "tear it all down" undertone to his book that I found very compelling. But the violence isn't sensationalized or played for cheap shock value. What makes it all so effective is his unsentimental approach. Whitehead writes about the most terrible things in a chilling and matter-of-fact manner, and that underscores the fact that extreme violence and sexual depravity were simply part of the fabric of slavery. He accepts the reality of the violence and evil, and he doesn't shy away from it. There is a brutal honesty in his depiction.
I also admired Whitehead's creative alternate-history take on slavery. He imagines different paths slavery might have taken in various Southern states: from a pseudo-scientific social experiment in South Carolina to a nightmarish vision of pure hell in North Carolina. Come to think of it, maybe the "good intentions" and relative tranquility in South Carolina are even more terrifying in a sense.
Each stop on Cora's journey is a bold and different set piece, with its own supporting cast, which forces us think about slavery in a new way. We're constantly pushed and challenged, and never allowed to become complacent as readers. Just when you think you know where things are headed. . . .
Connecting those set pieces is the railroad itself. Whitehead's conceit of a physical railroad was one of the things about the novel that didn't really work for me. It felt, at best, like a convenient plot mechanism to quickly move the story along to each place he wanted to take us. It allows him to avoid dealing with the journey the slaves actually would have had to make in the real world, with all its trials and tribulations. Whitehead's vision of the underground path to the North is less about the journey and more about the stations along the way he wants to show us.
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD is not a perfect book. It's rough around the edges. As with his previous books, there's something about Whitehead's prose style that doesn't always agree with me. I often have to backtrack to figure out what he's actually trying to say. His jumps back and forth in time and space can be jarring. And there are other irritations and excesses. Whitehead's characters aren't always successful, other than Cora, who does emerge as a nuanced and memorable heroine who breathes life into the story at every turn.
But perhaps I quibble. In the end, I think it all comes together into a coherent whole. And the cumulative effect is staggering. I won't be forgetting Cora's journey anytime soon.
(Thanks to Doubleday for a complimentary copy. Receiving it did not affect the content of my review.)
Oh, yes. If you weren't aware, The Underground Railroad is an alternate history with something of a taste of magical realism, to boot.
Cora is a slave on a Georgia plantation undergoing the transition from a benevolent master to his two less stable sons. After a visit to a slave gathering leaves Cora beaten by one of the sons, Cora jumps at an opportunity to escape the plantation and joins Caesar, a slave from Virginia more recently purchased by her master, as he escapes the plantation and with the help of a local white man escapes on the Underground Railroad.
Which just happens to be a real railroad. Underground.
It's around this point that I did a double take and realized that something was off. I'm no scholar of the slave-owning south, or even of the American Civil War (though I've enjoyed a few good books about the period, including Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels and the excellent Civil War anthology With My Face to the Enemy edited by Robert Cowley), but I am pretty sure that the Underground Railroad was more of a symbolic name for the network of safe houses and secret routes to the north to help escaping slaves than a real railroad, let alone an underground railroad. Colson's conceit is an America just a bit off from our own, with a railroad that is real, is underground, and where each stop is a new state with new parameters.
As Cora moves north, each trip on the Underground Railroad takes her to a new state, and each state has its own version of what might have happened if history had taken a slightly--or significantly--different turn. I won't give spoilers, but each stop on Cora's journey seems calculated to flesh out another piece of the American story of slaves and the journey they faced, not just in antebellum America, but in the post-war world. Colson integrates some of the particularly pernicious repressions that only arose after slavery ended (including lynchings and disease testing on blacks) in a way that makes it as sinister as it was, reminding us that America's history with race is anything but blameless.
Indeed, here's where I lean towards wanting to rate The Underground Railroad higher: we read the book as part of a book club and while we spent very little time discussing the actual book we did spend significant time discussing the issues of race in modern America. (The irony of a group of white men discussing race from the comfort of quiet and relatively homogenous Utah does not escape me. At one point, someone asked me a direct question about how I thought we could improve how we deal with race in our country and I was forced to admit that I had no idea. All I could offer is that we could probably start off with individual attitudes of humility and acceptance of others' differences, but otherwise--who am I to tell others how to solve their problems?) Brittany, my wife, read The Underground Railroad at the same time I did, and we found lots of opportunity to discuss the issues it raised, as well. (The book she next read was Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, which she insists I should read, as well, so I guess we're on a streak?) Any book that provokes discussion and reevaluation of perspectives is, in my humble opinion, worthy of some repute.
But why only three stars and not four? I think the way the book fell short was in Whitehead's development of characters, especially Cora. Despite lots of opportunity for building sympathy and depth, Whitehead leaves her just out of reach, almost disconnected from the sometimes more sympathetic characters around her, a woman who often seems unwilling to allow herself to feel, and thereby gain a color that might endear her to the reader.
Would I recommend The Underground Railroad? Probably, though not without reservation. It is not for everyone, but probably the right kind of literary fiction that will meet the guidelines of the bookclub-type reader.
As Cora escapes from the Georgia plantation she was born on, she travels on the Underground Railroad, literally. She stops in different southern states, with varying degrees of racism that almost make the plantation look good. And that's all I can say without spoilers.
Whitehead takes a topic that has been much discussed, and categorizes the history of racism, pointing out our ignorances and prejudices, while at the same time telling a great story.
It really makes you think.
This novel felt like nonfiction to me. Written starkly and without restraint. 5 stars for its impact and writing.
The critics are all in wonderment over Whitehead's creation of a literal underground railroad--not just a secret network of safe homes, but an actual railroad built underground to carry runaway slaves to safer places. It's an interesting idea, but the real story, of course, is Cora's will to survive, along with the suffering both she and her helpers sustain. I admit that I'm no expert in the topic, so I'm not sure how much of Whitehead's depiction of the various states is based in fact. South Carolina, for example, was considered a progressive state in the novel because they provided cheap housing, literacy, and employment assistance for people of color; but they also pushed a program of sterilization onto young black women. North Carolina, according to Whitehead, "abolished" slavery by banishing blacks from the state, on pain of hanging, and by hiring cheap white labor to do the work of slaves; whites who harbored runaways were subject to the same punishment, carried out in public celebrations. Tennessee was a terrifying place running rampant with slave hunters. The relatively new state of Indiana was still in the throes of labor pains, unsure of how to handle large numbers of black settlers.
I'm not going to reveal any more of the plot. Let me just say that Whitehead has created an indomitable and believable character in Cora, and her story will suck you in. If the fact that this book is an Oprah selection turns you off, just black out that big O on the front cover and keep reading. (Honestly, I don't get this snooty response, since many of her picks have been wonderful.) This one is a definite winner.
In a nutshell: Cora escapes the plantation she is enslaved on and faces more challenges and danger.
Line that sticks with me: “Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.”
Why I chose it: It’s been on my shelf for a few months; my visiting brother-in-law suggested it was a good book to bring on our family vacation last week.
Colson Whitehead is a talented writer. He tells a compelling story about a brutal time in U.S. history, weaving in components that aren’t necessarily accurate from a time perspective but that still happened. He doesn’t pull any punches with the horrors of life as a slave and punishment of slaves, but this book doesn’t feel like torture porn. It is graphic but not voyeuristic.
The story itself is fascinating. Mr. Whitehead follows Cora but also tells some of the story of her grandmother and mother, as well as of the people she encounters along the way. We never sympathize with slave owners, but Mr. Whitehead also allows them to be more than just caricatures with twirling mustaches. But what’s better, he allows for the people helping out on the underground railroad (which, in this telling, is an actual railway that is buried underground) to be less than saintly. I also appreciate that the individuals in this book are fully developed and provided with things to do that aren’t just in service of the main character.
Cora, however, is a remarkable woman. She is conflicted. She is brave, but not reckless. She thinks things through. She is skeptical (rightfully) of others. She doesn’t start out totally naive, but Mr. Whitehead draws her out so that she matures in her understanding of the motivations of others. She wants to survive, and she wants to believe that perhaps better things can happen for her.
I’m happy that this book moved up to the top of my to be read list; if you have it on yours but haven’t picked it up yet, I promise you won’t be disappointed if you start it today.
The story centers around Cora, a motherless slave living on the Randall estate in Georgia. When another slave, Caesar, suggests they attempt an escape, Cora initially demurs…until she draws unwanted sexual attentions from her owner.
The problems with this novel are not in the motivations. Those we understand. The problems are technical: an insufficiently developed Cora, and a mere silhouette of Caesar, the two central characters. When Caesar practically disappears from the narrative one-third of the way in, we barely notice, he was so inconsequential and underdeveloped. Talk about exploitation: he was simply a device.
But this is fiction, and the author can do whatever he wants, like create an actual underground railroad to eliminate the pesky problem of researching and charting a perilous journey to innumerable secret above-ground destinations that would allow us to picture and relive the terror, the deprivation, and the strength of character of all participants in the movement of hunted individuals within a dangerous environment. When the author suggests that white community members in South Carolina at this time were encouraging scientific experiments on, and recommending sterilizations for, freed black men and women, we don’t trust it and are annoyed that we are going to have to do our own research to verify the (outrageous if false) claim in the fictional narrative.
Problems of language are also present here, with untenable and frankly unbelievable hectoring challenges from Cora to her white rescuers along the trail: “You feel like a slave?…Born to it, like a slave?” …and Cora’s challenge to Ridgeway, the homicidal slave catcher, after a chatty exchange: “More words to pretty things up.” When Cora idly wonders whether a new wave of immigrants will replace the Irish, “fleeing a different but no less abject country” we are startled. Where did that come from and why would Cora have any knowledge of, or any particular interest in, conditions in Ireland or anywhere else, for that matter? It just isn’t reasonable and seems out of place.
Then we have the awkwardness of the language: “Cora kept her tongue,” and “Over the years life on Orchard Street passed with a tedium that eventually congealed into comfort,” or “The game of husband and wife was even less fun than she supposed. Jane, at least, turned out to be an unexpected mercy, a tidy bouquet in her arms, even if conception proved yet another humiliation.” These exceptionally ugly, charmless, and clichéd constructions add nothing to our pleasure.
Finally, there is no momentum in this novel. The storyline is broken into chunks that attempt to explain the backstory of some character or another or tell the story of a stop on Cora’s trail to freedom. Each break draws us further and further from any interest in Cora’s forward progress. It seems she (and we) will never get there.
I have seen the glowing reviews for this title, so take my criticisms as one among many. This would not be the title you should expect will give you a rich understanding of the real underground railroad for escaped slaves. For that we will have to look elsewhere.
Everything was humming along beautifully. We had a heart wrenching story of this girl who is living a life of terror, and getting a good sense of what that life is like for her, and then she takes off on the "underground railroad". Literally. Choo, choo, chugga, chugga. Now I know this author knows that there wasn't an elaborate train system running beneath ground, but for some reason he chose to interject this dose of magical realism...and then there are a few other oddities such as this that I was apparently too dense to see what it was really all about.
Now, there were more times of reality than not, and the reality is ugly, torturous, and a real awakening, or reawakening, for all of us, concerning both the slaves and the abolitionists. It is just unfortunate that it was the last half of the book where I struggled with the mixture of magical realism, and inconsistent behavior by characters. For example, the ruthless slave hunter who randomly buys a dress for one of his captives, and takes her out to dinner with no motive whatsoever, and no change of heart. Just randomly.
I don't know what else to say here, except to reiterate my level of confusion over whether to tell everyone I know to read this for the exemplary parts of the story that translate reality to the reader, or to tell no one because of the portions that were completely disconnected from reality.
At the same time, The Underground Railroad lacks in some areas that may alienate other readers. While the idea of using an actual underground railroad is promising, it does not add depth to the story. In fact, by deviating from historical events, The Underground Railroad loses some of its gravitas. The primary issue arising from The Underground Railroad is one of characters. Largely, I think they fail to connect with the reader. Characters who are central to the plot—characters like Caesar—can be snatched away and barely missed. Even Cora, our protagonist, fails to elicit the kind of emotions given to the protagonists of other well-known neo-slave narratives. Overall, the characters feel rather flat and the result is a story that meanders with only one central thread: a cold railroad beneath the ground.
In the end, the story relied completely on very well-written, vivid scenes, pieced loosely together by a connection to the railroad. For those readers who are able to connect to the story without the use of characters, or those who do connect with Cora, the outcome will be more favorable. Personally, despite some exceptional writing, my interest faltered the longer the story went on.
The fictional element of an actual railroad that ran underground, however, undercuts the credibility of the bigger story. The description of an actual railroad and of it running underground, or of any underground escape routes that the book portrays manifestly did not happen. In fact, at the Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, a component of our National Parks System,the first 5 words on the historical display describing the "underground railroad" reads, "Neither a railroad, nor underground...."
Still, the story is riveting and a rather good piece of historical fiction and I felt it showed me just how horrific slavery really was.
Altogether, therefore, this is a "good read" that I hope a lot more people will add to their own reading list.
Whitehead's writing moves forward at a quick pace and often times with a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye, you will be moved and find that this book will live with you a long time.
The funny thing about buzz is that it does not always mean a book is good. We can all list many examples of books that generated a lot of buzz but ended up being a disappointment when we finally read it. What makes The Underground Railroad is that it is entirely deserving of every word of praise it is currently generating. It is a novel that will make you sad and angry; it will terrify you and make you think. It is one of the rare novels that not only lives up to the hype, it actually manages to beat your expectations.
In The Underground Railroad, Mr. Whitehead creates a novel that is supremely timely and vital to understanding our present racial tensions by reminding us about our past. Through Cora, readers experience the fear, misery, and daily degradations of life as slave in the South. His reimaginings of each state are equal parts fantasy of what could have been and warning of could be should ongoing racial tensions escalate onto the political front. Mr. Whitehead’s writing is powerful and just about perfect, making an unforgettable story for the ages.
This is not only an engrossing story, it's also an important one.