Monday, March 5, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

My book group picked The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead for our next meeting. I had mixed feelings about the choice. It’s award-winning historical fiction, so I’ve felt for quite a while that it should be on my TBR pile and this was a great way to nudge me to read it. On the other hand, the premise didn’t grab me. The escape from slavery along the Underground Railroad imagined as if the route was an actual train? Why?

And my reaction to the book after reading it is also mixed. It’s essentially magical realism, which may explain why I found it slow going. I’ve found books in this genre usually fail to grab me. And then there is the unrelenting, mind-numbing brutality that seemed to deaden the emotions of the characters so that they never really came alive. (Maybe that was intentional?) Although I’m sure the horrors represented in the book are based on fact, it nevertheless never seemed real.

Cora is a young, enslaved woman, who is isolated from her fellow slaves as someone who just doesn’t fit in anywhere. Her father is gone. Her mother abandoned her in order to escape the Georgia cotton plantation and run away north. Of all those who attempted escape from this particular plantation, Cora’s mother is the only one to succeed. That notoriety burdens Cora because she isn’t proud of her mother. She’s angry.

A new arrival named Caesar takes notice of her. He, too, is different, having been educated by his former owner. The elderly woman led him to believe he’d be freed at her death. She lied. When he decides to run away, he asks Cora to join him. Although hesitant at first, changes taking place on the plantation make the decision for her. Caesar has contacts with the Underground Railroad. The escape is difficult, but they make it to the first stop. And here, they learn that a true railroad exists deep underground.

Until this point, the narrative is a fairly typical fictional story of desperate slaves risking all for freedom. But once on the railroad, Cora’s experience broadens to incorporate multiple forms of brutality, exploitation, humiliation, terrorization, and loss. There are a few good people who try to help, but the majority are untrustworthy at best and threatening as a rule.

The book bounced from place to place, event to event, even person to person, to show as much of man’s evilness to man as possible. I was pulled into some of the scenes, curious how they would play out, but on the whole, the characters were too much symbolic "types" to really care about. The book ended abruptly, which didn’t bother me since I was simply glad it was done.

The book is ambitious in scope. It’s clearly written. And it succeeds in making the reader uncomfortable about the sickening underpinning of our country’s foundation and growth. It’s a worthwhile read. But not a book I’d read twice.

1 comment:

  1. I was also intrigued, but even more so, I was put off by all the hype surrounding this book. I'm still not convinced I'd like this book. Thanks for the honest review!