Book review | The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

My feelings on The Underground Railroad are so mixed that I’ve changed my rating several times, first from a mere three, then up to a four, and back to just three stars. With much to think about and, yet, much that felt lacking, I think I’ve settled on a rating that perhaps underrates Colson Whitehead’s alternate history.

Oh, yes. If you weren’t aware, The Underground Railroad is an alternate history with something of a taste of magical realism, to boot.

Cora is a slave on a Georgia plantation undergoing the transition from a benevolent master to his two less stable sons. After a visit to a slave gathering leaves Cora beaten by one of the sons, Cora jumps at an opportunity to escape the plantation and joins Caesar, a slave from Virginia more recently purchased by her master, as he escapes the plantation and with the help of a local white man escapes on the Underground Railroad.

Which just happens to be a real railroad. Underground.

It’s around this point that I did a double take and realized that something was off. I’m no scholar of the slave-owning south, or even of the American Civil War (though I’ve enjoyed a few good books about the period, including Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels and the excellent Civil War anthology With My Face to the Enemy edited by Robert Cowley), but I am pretty sure that the Underground Railroad was more of a symbolic name for the network of safe houses and secret routes to the north to help escaping slaves than a real railroad, let alone an underground railroad. Colson’s conceit is an America just a bit off from our own, with a railroad that is real, is underground, and where each stop is a new state with new parameters.

As Cora moves north, each trip on the Underground Railroad takes her to a new state, and each state has its own version of what might have happened if history had taken a slightly–or significantly–different turn. I won’t give spoilers, but each stop on Cora’s journey seems calculated to flesh out another piece of the American story of slaves and the journey they faced, not just in antebellum America, but in the post-war world. Colson integrates some of the particularly pernicious repressions that only arose after slavery ended (including lynchings and disease testing on blacks) in a way that makes it as sinister as it was, reminding us that America’s history with race is anything but blameless.

Indeed, here’s where I lean towards wanting to rate The Underground Railroad higher: we read the book as part of a book club and while we spent very little time discussing the actual book we did spend significant time discussing the issues of race in modern America. (The irony of a group of white men discussing race from the comfort of quiet and relatively homogenous Utah does not escape me. At one point, someone asked me a direct question about how I thought we could improve how we deal with race in our country and I was forced to admit that I had no idea. All I could offer is that we could probably start off with individual attitudes of humility and acceptance of others’ differences, but otherwise–who am I to tell others how to solve their problems?) Brittany, my wife, read The Underground Railroad at the same time I did, and we found lots of opportunity to discuss the issues it raised, as well. (The book she next read was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which she insists I should read, as well, so I guess we’re on a streak?) Any book that provokes discussion and reevaluation of perspectives is, in my humble opinion, worthy of some repute.

But why only three stars and not four? I think the way the book fell short was in Whitehead’s development of characters, especially Cora. Despite lots of opportunity for building sympathy and depth, Whitehead leaves her just out of reach, almost disconnected from the sometimes more sympathetic characters around her, a woman who often seems unwilling to allow herself to feel, and thereby gain a color that might endear her to the reader.

Would I recommend The Underground Railroad? Probably, though not without reservation. It is not for everyone, but probably the right kind of literary fiction that will meet the guidelines of the bookclub-type reader.

The Underground Railroad Book Cover The Underground Railroad
Colson Whitehead
Alternate History
August 2, 2016

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.

About Daniel

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. He reads about history, politics, and current events, as well as more serious genres such as science fiction and fantasy. You can also follow him on his blog where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas.