Posted by: Jeanie F | January 9, 2017

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead



The protagonist of this powerful book is Cora, a slave on a plantation in antebellum Georgia, whose experience encompasses the full range of horrors and indignities subsumed in that time and place. Colson Whitehead, author of this disturbing novel, has done his homework, combing through the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s for background information. He does not spare his readers the harsh truth. Along with the realities of slavery in pre-Civil War America, which have been well documented in both fiction and non-fiction, Mr. Whitehead has added an element of fantasy, conjuring up a literal “underground railway” – a collection of train cars, tracks and stops from Georgia to Indiana that ferry runaways to safety. As anyone who has read any of the body of work about slavery in America knows, “safety” was never guaranteed to those trying to escape the horrors of their situation, and Mr. Whitehead makes sure we are never too comfortable about Cora’s chances of success.

The winner of the National Book Award for 2016, not to mention a choice for Oprah’s Book Club, The Underground Railroad has received plenty of attention and been reviewed by every prominent reviewer around. Some of the observations have been:

*The journey is more rocket ship than train, as Cora shoots through tunnels and we go with her. Each chapter leapfrogs over the next as we are yanked, jostled, dragged into lands beyond imagination. We see a kaleidoscope of macabre colours: brown skin charred black after being torched. The soil turning into red mud. Mouths sewn shut. This uncanny novel never attempts to deliver a message – instead it tells one of the most compelling stories I have ever read. (Cynthia Bond, The Guardian)

*One of the remarkable things about this novel is how Mr. Whitehead found an elastic voice that accommodates both brute realism and fablelike allegory, the plain-spoken and the poetic — a voice that enables him to convey the historical horrors of slavery with raw, shocking power. He conveys its emotional fallout: the fear, the humiliation, the loss of dignity and control. And he conveys the daily brutality of life on the plantation, where Cora is gang-raped, and where whippings (accompanied by scrubbings in pepper water to intensify the pain) are routine. (Michiko Kakutani, Books of The Times, New York Times)

*This is grim material to be sure, but hope animates the story, and Whitehead’s narrative is a fascinating lamination of disparate tones. Sentences seem to twist phrase by phrase — mocking, mourning, satirizing, celebrating. While describing the horror of the plantation, he also honors the slaves’ courage and relishes their wry humor. Elegant lawn parties are undercut by casual references to torture. But the ultimate effect of sabotaging our glossy history is to remind us that we stand upon “stolen bodies working stolen land.” (Ron Charles, Washington Post)

This was not an easy read. One of the problems with difficult emotional material in the hands of an outstanding writer such as Mr. Whitehead is that you feel every lash of the whip, every indignity, every heartbreak, just as the author intended you to do. But I will end by quoting Ron Charles one more time:

The canon of essential novels about America’s peculiar institution just grew by one.


  1. Great review but I’m still not convinced to read it. As you say – too many books, too little time. And Homegoing was enough on the topic for me.

    • I agree – both great books, but hard to read. Am moving on to Wolf Hollow, at your recommendation. Will be our Feb. book club book. I’ll be interested to hear how you like your Feb. book (The Girl Who Wrote on Silk, right?). We read it a few months ago.

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