Thursday, March 07, 2019

Fiction Review: The Underground Railroad

I might just be the last person on earth to finally read Colson Whitehead's stunning and revered novel, The Underground Railroad. It won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2016, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2017, and several other prestigious prizes, as well as being nominated for a bunch of other awards and being on just about every Top 10 list the year it was published. After gazing at it on my shelf with anticipation for over a year, I finally made time to read it in February. Wow. I was just as moved and engrossed by this unique and powerful novel as all the other readers, reviewers, and prize-awarders have been.

Cora has grown up on the Randall plantation in Georgia and has been an orphan since about the age of ten or eleven, when her mother, Mabel, escaped. She was moved to the Hob, a small cabin set aside for the misfits of the slave community, but she clung hard to - and fought to protect - her mother's (and previously, her grandmother's) tiny garden, a 3-yard square plot of dirt in between cabins. When Caesar, a newly arrived slave from Virginia, asks teen-aged Cora about escaping, she says no at first, but after a violent and terrifying incident, she agrees. The two slaves escape through the nearby swamp one dark night, with their masters and various slave catchers close on their heels. One young man, a boy really, almost catches them, but when he tries to rape Cora, she kills him and they continue. Cora and Caesar make it to the Underground Railroad station and begin their journey north, in constant danger of being re-captured, especially now that Cora has been labelled the murderer of a white man. Their travels take them through the Carolinas and beyond, seeking freedom.

Here, while in hiding on her journey, Cora muses about the meaning of freedom:
"What a world it is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your own 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."
Whitehead has written a very honest, authentic, and thought-provoking story of what life was really like for slaves on a southern plantation and the dangers of life on the run...but with his own clever twists. As steeped as the novel is in real-life history (each chapter opens with a real fugitive slave ad), it also presents an alternate history. In the novel, the Underground Railroad is quite literal: a real railroad that travels through tunnels underground, with hidden stations below the barns and homes of anti-slavery white people, who risk their own lives to help slaves move north. In addition, each southern state they travel through in the narrative has established its own unique way of dealing with Blacks - one of them has even abolished slavery and set up an alternate lifestyle for the freed slaves. As Cora travels, she experiences each new state, some of them disturbingly horrific and some seemingly peaceful. These fictional experiences in made-up societies mirror much of what happened - and is happening - in the real world over hundreds of years. The overall effect of this mix of real history and alternate history is a compelling and thoughtful story with characters that you root for (and those you hate). The premise is intriguing and ingenuous and kept me riveted to the page. As with any book about the real horrors of slavery, some passages are difficult to read, but Cora's courage and determination kept me captivated to the very end.

306 pages, Doubleday
Random House Audio

Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. My review is my own opinion and is not influenced by my relationship with the publisher or author.

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Listen to a sample of the audio book. I read this one in print, but the audio sounds excellent and is probably even more powerful.

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  1. I also have not read this book, but it is on my shelves. I think I am worried I won't like the magical bits of it. I should just get over that and dive in to it.

    1. No worries, Helen. Despite what I'd heard, it's really not magical nor fantasy (the railroad itself might be science fiction but it is not dwelt on) - it's more of an alternate history mixed in with real history. I think you'll like it - so moving and powerful.

  2. This book is amazing on so many levels. I finally talked book group into reading it, but it isn't on our list for several months.

    1. Hey, that's great, Anne! It's a book that just begs to be discussed.

  3. I'm someone else who hasn't got to this yet! I'm glad it lived up to the hype for you :)

    1. Glad to hear I'm not the last! It is well worth your reading time - and deserving of all its awards & accolades.