The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead
Bare-bones plot: Cora is a Georgia plantation slave made doubly miserable because she is shunned even by her fellow slaves. When Cora and two others attempt escape, Cora accidentally kills a young member of a posse attempting to recapture the escapees. She manages to reach the temporary safety of the underground railroad, and the rest of the novel follows her nightmarish journey from security to hardship to recapture and eventual rescue. But will she ever attain her freedom?
The Underground Railroad is a very good novel that pulls no punches and fears no reprisal. Whitehead’s depictions of violence, against slaves, those who assist them, and those who hunt them when they abscond, are visceral, bloody, and bone-jarring. Protagonist Cora is one of the strongest and most realistic characters I’ve encountered recently, and I found myself caring deeply for her suffering and hoping for her success in escaping slavery. There are many colorful supporting characters who either help or hinder Cora along the way, but antagonist Ridgeway is by far the most compelling and sympathetic. He is so clear in his convictions and determined in his sense of rightness that he is hard not to like, at times, despite the despicable role he fills. Two things I particularly enjoyed about the novel are the way Whitehead uses disjointed narrative to tell the stories of all the important characters and his use of an actual underground railroad complete with rails, ties, engines, and tunnels as the most mysterious but binding character in the book. As a longtime resident of Tennessee, I was both gratified to see it feature so prominently in the story and horrified to see it portrayed as a blasted, burnt, and hellish realm.
This is the first Colson Whitehead book I’ve read. I perused several interview articles about him that make clear The Underground Railroad is a departure for him. It sounds like some of his previous books may be somewhat similar to George Saunders’ style, and since I’m such a fan of Saunders’, I’ll probably read some more Whitehead.
I previously posted this review, minus the “Bare-bones plot”, on Goodreads.
Take care, be well, and happy reading!