“All men are created equal, unless we decide you are not a man.”
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead fits squarely into a categorization I would refer to as “novels of pain” — a subheading I would also attribute to books such as A Little Life and Beloved.
I will begin by acknowledging that this is the first novel I’ve read by Whitehead and, therefore, I can offer no significant comparison to his larger body of work.
The story opens with Cora, a slave on the Randall plantation, and her dramatic tale of escape. She meets Caesar, another slave who grew up under different circumstances in Virginia, and he is the impetus for her decision. Whitehead successfully crafts a story that is both plot and character-driven, delving into Cora’s generational past and examining her multi-tiered motivation for escape. The dangers they encounter along the way kept the plot fluid and mobile.
There are multiple POVs and that, at first, was offputting to me. I wanted to stick with Cora’s story. When the narrative made a jerky and sudden transition to Ridgeway’s POV, I put the book down for a couple of days. When I picked it back up, and discerned the true purpose of Whitehead’s introduction of the character, I was utterly engrossed. His quick transitions took a bit of getting used to as I continued, but they didn’t take me away from the overall story.
Whitehead offers some interesting divergences from a more traditional slave narrative in that he includes the POV of both a slave catcher and a grave robber. Additionally, he intersperses a bit of magical realism by realizing the Underground Railroad as an actual railroad, complete with unique trains, the decor in each station ranging from elaborate to pitiful, and including at every stop a host of interesting characters acting as station agents along the way. (Here, I can see why people were so quick to liken it to Gulliver’s Travels.)
I cried, predictably and unexpectedly, over moments so brief they didn’t even last a paragraph. That is how the writing struck me — lashing out when I had just calmed myself. It utterly destroyed me when one of the older escaped slaves is trying to learn to read in the South Carolina schoolhouse and Cora and the children get frustrated with him, he begins to cry, then he hastily wipes his eyes. Cora even recounts the moment later when she realizes the extent of her own ignorance in the Valentine schoolhouse.
The turns of phrase in this book are excellent as Whitehead examines, and re-examines, the violent history of slavery America — holding a microscope so closely to our collective consciousness, that you may have to take a moment to look away, to collect yourself, and then continue. But you must continue, because this book is important.
Overall Rating: 5/5
Recommended For: purveyors of pseudo-realistic American history, people who can stomach atrocities, those who know we can’t look away from our past.