I received this book for free from Doubleday, NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on August 2nd 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Historical, African American, General
Format: Electronic ARC
Source: Doubleday, NetGalley
Buy on Amazon
3.5 Stars. Cora is a slave on the Randall plantation, the place where she was born and where her grandmother and mother were also slaves. Caesar, a new arrival on the property, offers her an opportunity to accompany him on the Underground Railroad, but she is hesitant. When leadership on the plantation changes hands and Cora’s circumstances get even worse, she decides to take a chance and flee with Caesar. Not one to let his property get away, Terrance Randall sends a determined slave catcher after the duo. As Cora and Caeser embark on a horrifying journey through the heart of America in search of freedom, the dangers of being caught are always at the forefront of their minds.
“If you want to see what this nation is all about, I always say, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.”
I try to avoid blurbs, so I thought this book was going to be straightforward historical fiction. It was so different than I expected and it defies classification! It isn’t historical fiction in the traditional sense and it doesn’t claim to be. The actual train running underground is the first clue that liberties will be taken with historical facts, although the horrors are all very real. It sometimes felt like Cora was traveling through time, as well as the country. This collapsed version of history made the message clearer than if the events been spread out over decades, similar to how an expressionist painting can be a more accurate representation of its subject than a more realistic portrayal. The almost fantastic nature of the story made me feel unstuck in time*, which made it easier to apply the message broadly and prevented me from compartmentalizing it as the distant past.
Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.
It’s impossible to know Cora’s actual age, but she thinks she is around sixteen or seventeen. Her mother ran away when she was a child and she resents being left behind to fend for herself. She’s emotionally restrained from the abuse she has endured from both slave owners and fellow slaves. The one thing Cora “owns” is “a plot three yards square and the hearty stuff that sprouted from it.” The plot was passed down to her mother from her grandmother and to Cora once her mother ran away. At one point another slave decides to challenge her ownership of that small piece of land. I fell in love with Cora the moment she challenged that grown man in order to protect the only thing she had to call her own.
After Cora escapes the plantation, her journey leads her through multiple states. Each state has its own culture and it was interesting to experience the worlds Whitehead created. At the beginning of each leg of Cora’s journey is an actual runaway slave advertisement. I was confused by those until the end, because I wasn’t sure how they tied into Cora’s story. (This may be a Kindle-only problem!) While they are all affecting, the last one is especially poignant. The state sections are also separated by short chapters revealing the back stories and motivations of some of the characters Cora encounters, including her grandmother, the slave catcher and a South Carolina doctor. One of the things that struck me most in those chapters (that I can mention), is how the slaves’ bodies were pilfered even after their deaths. The character chapters were interesting, but they were my least favorite part. I wanted to get back to Cora!
Why had they believed that two lowly slaves deserved the bounty of South Carolina? That a new life existed so close, just over the state line? It was still the south, and the devil had long nimble fingers. And then, after all the world had taught them, not to recognize chains when they were snapped to their wrists and ankles. The South Carolina chains were of new manufacture—the keys and tumblers marked by regional design—but accomplished the purpose of chains. They had not traveled very far at all.
South Carolina was my favorite section because it reminded me so much of the dystopian speculative fiction that I like to read. South Carolina seems significantly better than what Cora just escaped from, but something isn’t right. As Cora reveals more about the community, it appears that much of their independence is an illusion. Cora’s strange job assignment is a highlight of this section. Sterilization and medical experimentation popped up decades before I would have expected, but the juxtaposition of those events with the physical chains that Cora just escaped was very effective.
The weak link—she liked the ring of it. To seek the imperfection in the chain that keeps you in bondage. Taken individually, the link was not much. But in concert with its fellows, a mighty iron that subjugated millions despite its weakness. The people she chose, young and old, from the rich part of town or the more modest streets, did not individually persecute Cora. As a community, they were shackles. If she kept at it, chipping away at weak links wherever she found them, it might add up to something.
I was most engaged with the story when I was at Cora’s side. About halfway through, it started to lose its emotional grip on me. In North Carolina and Tennessee, Cora became mostly an observer. Those chapters felt long to me, even though they were interesting and important. There were more character introductions that read like dry biographical accounts. Sometimes the order in which events were revealed made me feel disoriented. For example, I felt thrown into the Indiana setting at 77%. At 84%, the timeline between Tennessee and Indiana is finally explained. That doesn’t seem like very long to wait, but I had all these nagging questions that kept me from focusing until I got those answers. A similar thing happened in South Carolina, though not as pronounced. Even though I had issues with those sections, there were still so many powerful and memorable parts: Cora watching community events through the hole in the attic, Freedom Trail, the desolation. a scene reminiscent of the Tulsa Race Riot (though that certainly isn’t the only one). The aforementioned scenes would have been right at home in a horror novel.
What a world it is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.
While it didn’t always engage my heart, it did engage my brain. What is freedom? Are you free if you lose your chains, but your actions are still bound by the ruling majority? Are you free if your pursuit of liberty and happiness is always under threat by fearful neighbors? Why should someone have to forgo their rights for the majority’s psychological comfort? To what extent are we trapped into our roles by systems beyond our control? How far do you have to get from injustices before they can be put behind you?
A notion crept over her like a shadow: that this station was not the start of the line but its terminus. Construction hadn’t started beneath the house but at the other end of the black hole. As if in the world there were no places to escape to, only places to flee.
The Underground Railroad shines a light on the tensions and distrust that we still experience today. It questions the notion of freedom and attempts to hold a mirror up to the “true face of America.” The writing was emotionally distancing for me, but it was thought-provoking and a unique take on the subject. It won’t do you any favors on a history exam, but it goes much deeper than that. I finished the book wanting to read everything Colson Whitehead has ever written!
If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America. It was a joke, then, from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.
If you liked this book, you might want to try:
• Gulliver’s Travels – Mentioned in the story and the editor’s letter.
• Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man – It has been a long time since I read it, but I remember it feeling authentic and strange at the same time.
• We Love You, Charlie Freeman – It’s primarily contemporary and has a more young adult feel, but it also shares many themes. I was reminded of Nymphadora, Dr. Gardner, and Miss Toneybee-Leroy many times!
• The Retrieval – (Netflix) Time period, tough choices.
“We can’t save everyone. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth. Nothing’s going to grow in this mean cold, but we can still have flowers.”