I just finished reading Colson Whitehead’s recent novel Underground Railroad. This is from the book review on Amazon.com
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, the #1 New York Times bestseller from 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.
The book is a very inventive and ingenious blend of fact and fantasy. Crafted based on historical events that informed readers will recognize, part of the “fun” of the book is seeing how the author takes disparate elements of the past and creates an imagined whole that is at once odd and eerily familiar.
Underground Railroad is both a hard read, due to the subject matter, and a fast read, because it’s so easy to become invested in the main character that readers really really really want to see how her journey finally ends. For the most part, the story is relentlessly bleak and sad. So many bad things happen that I wanted and almost needed the main character Cora to have a happy ending. And I don’t know if she has one, although the author has called the ending “hopeful.”
For me, the only relief is knowing that, there but for the grace of God, go I. That, and the knowledge that things do get better, and we should be thankful that they do.