Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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Title: The Underground Railroad

Author: Colson Whitehead

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Doubleday Books

Published: August 2, 2016

Page Amount: 306 pages

Goodreads Summary: Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish 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 and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

Why Read: Underground Railroad was supposed to be the “it book” of last year. Book podcasts discussed it, I read reviews, and it felt like a must read. So naturally, I was far too lazy and didn’t pick it up. The blurbs I read didn’t especially draw me in, but eventually I got around to picking it up and I’m so pleased I did.

Review: If I had to pick one thing about Underground Railroad that kept me coming back for more, it would be the changes in narrative perspective. Each chapter gave me just enough time to become invested in the characters before immediately shifting to a new character, someone seemingly unrelated. At first, the order wasn’t entirely clear to me – or that there needed to be a map of where each tale meant for me to go. Now, I’m still struggling – but I can absolutely see why this book won so many awards.

The writing is beautiful and the story it tells is haunting. Although there is a bit of fiction tied into the idea of what the Underground Railroad actually was, it gives the story an element of excitement. Where did it come from? Who built it? How can know for sure where it’s going? The answer is you don’t. That bit of magic brings something to the book, I’m not sure what – but it was truly enjoyable even while we read about the actual horrors of slavery, something that it can be easy to forget, especially as a white reader.

Cora is the main character, although the perspective shifts quite a lot and so we get to read about her viewpoint of what escaping slavery is like, about how she copes with her mother abandoning her at the plantation at such a young age. There are these interesting elements of bitterness fused with hope that perhaps she’ll see her again that really sold me on Cora as a well-developed character.

No book can properly give homage, I think, to what it must have been like to be on the run from slavery – but Underground Railroad does an absolutely outstanding job of placing you in the narrator’s shoes and if only for a moment, emotionally you are with her. So my recommendation as you can imagine, is go to read this book immediately!

Rating: 4.7/5 Stars

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Carly Craig says:

    Hi from a fellow American expat! I’ve been similarly lazy about picking up this novel, even though I’ve seen it everywhere, but this review motivates me. Somehow, until now, I’d only read the Goodreads summary and hadn’t heard about the near-magical-realism element of travelling on an actual underground railroad. It sounds really intriguing!

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