First published in 2016
My rating: 4 out of 5
The Short Of It:
A very worthwhile contribution to the growing compendium of thought-provoking novels about race by today's black authors.
The Long Of It:
"The Underground Railroad" is a hard-hitting, engrossing portrait of slavery, its incomprehensible horrors and the souls brave enough to risk their lives getting slaves to freedom.
"The Underground Railroad" is about Cora, born into slavery on a Georgia cotton plantation, abandoned at 10 when her mother ran away and left her behind, and treated as an outcast in the slave village. Cora goes about her days picking cotton and tending to a tiny vegetable garden, the only thing her mother left her, but deep down in her gut lies fire, moxie and courage just waiting for the right time to come out.
That time arrives when fellow slave Cesar asks Cora to join him in an escape attempt via the Underground Railroad -- which in the novel is meant quite literally, as a series of railways and stations constructed in underground tunnels -- and eventually Cora agrees. Their journey is not destined to be an easy one, though, and it's fraught with problems from day one -- not least of which is that infamous slave catcher Ridgeway, who has never let go of the fact that he failed to capture Cora's mother -- is on their trail.
Cora's time on the plantation and her subsequent escape, shuttled from state to state in a race toward freedom, are at times disturbing and difficult to read (one appalling event in particular will stay with me forever) but there are also scenes of hope and compassion. Whitehead has crafted a well-rounded tale that combines a history lesson, an action-packed plot, a protagonist you can't help but cheer for and enough glimpses of the good side of human nature that the story isn't a miserable, depressing read.
There were a few things that irked me about the book, though, and I'll just mention the biggest one briefly. It was advertised as a unique and creative take on an old tale because it had the novelty of an actual underground railroad, with actual trains and actual tracks and actual conductors. But I really could've done without all that; the fact that the railroad was meant in a literal sense felt a bit gimmicky given that it wasn't really important to the story. Maybe I would've appreciated the idea more if we'd seen a bigger picture of this special Underground Railroad's operations. I also thought it took away from what must have been the sheer terror -- for both parties -- of transporting slaves across open land.
Though it wasn't a perfect novel, I still highly recommend it as an important voice in the ongoing conversation our country is having about race. Books like Whitehead's, Yaa Gysasi's "Homegoing" and Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me" artfully, memorably, accessibly remind us how we got to the place we are now -- so important to keep in mind when discussing the future.