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The Underground Railroad by Whitehead- A Reminder of a Past Every Human Being should be Ashamed of

29th August, 2017

Book Review : The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Two slaves try to escape from their master and hope to lead a free life elsewhere. The journey will take the reader through Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Indiana; each place reeking of a distinct flavour.

The novel won Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2017), National Book Award for Fiction (2016) and Arthur C. Clarke Award (2017), to name a few. It is longlisted for Man Booker Prize (2017).

Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad is a vast network of people who helped fugitive slaves escape to the North and Canada. It was collectively run by many individuals, dominated by black people and included a few whites too. The main aim was to help the slaves escape their ill fates and have a better life. It was interesting to read about this operation manifested as an actual railroad in Whitehead’s book.

In Brief

The story is set in the early 1820’s. Cora and Caesar are slaves who are on the run from Randall’s plantation. Cora is a third generation slave whose grandmother, Ajarry, was captured by the whites. Her mother, Mabel, is the only slave who has fled the plantation and not been captured back. Hence, Caeser sees Cora as a lucky charm who will benefit his escape through the underground railroad. But the slave catcher, Ridgeway, who still holds the grudge that he could not catch Mabel is out to hunt both of them down.

The brutal history

I applaud the research that has gone into writing this book. The horrifying punishments imparted on slaves made me question humanity in people. How can anyone do such gruesome acts to another human being? I read several passages with a lump in my throat. It was terrible, unimaginable and shattering. Whitehead also uses inspiration from original notices that announced the names and descriptions of the slaves who escaped. This made the book feel even more real.

Oppression of women

Further saddening is how women have always been the lowest rung of human life. As much as the book made me well up about the treatment of slaves, I was touched by how bad women were treated; both by the masters and by fellow slaves. It does seem that women are an easy prey on whom men can take out their frustrations.

The idea of freedom

The whole novel focusses on the aspect of freedom. It also makes you think how much freedom are you entitled to even after you break free? Cora sees new shackles in the ‘free world’ such as religious teachings, sterilization and being forced to enact African way of living as perceived by the whites in a museum.

Half baked Characters

While I was more or less invested in the story of Cora and her struggles to break free, I was not that eager about any of the other main characters. And while some of the minor characters (such as a white woman who sees Cora as something sent by God for her to save, people who believe in freedom of slaves but think they should be sterilized) were interesting to read about and wonderfully written; many other minor characters fell flat for me.

Slightly Underwhelming

I had high expectations for the book because it won so many awards and was a pick for Oprah’s Book Club. I usually love the ones I have read from Oprah’s picks, a recent one being Ruby by Cynthia Bond which ended up being an eternal favourite. However I was slightly underwhelmed by the way this novel was written. I did not feel that deep connection to the characters mentioned in the story. Perhaps I have been unconsciously comparing the book to Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, which I read recently and adored even though each generation in the family saga is condensed to one chapter. I might say Homegoing is a better pick than The Underground Railroad if you have the time for just one book. But of course, both novels have their own share of merits.

I was troubled by the ending chapters being crammed with lots of new twists instead of a steady pacing throughout the novel. But may I also add that I cried at Mabel’s story? It was heart breaking to read how her story unfolded before the book ended.

Final Verdict :

This is an excellent read; but I expected more from the book. I would recommend the book for it’s honest and brutal portrayal of slavery and successful attempt to opening the reader’s eyes to how cruel one race can be towards another race. I urge the reader to look for the tyranny and its consequences on the slaves and over look the abrupt transitions in plot and off beat pacing in this important work of historical fiction.

Title : The Underground Railroad
Author : Colson Whitehead
Publisher : Doubleday
Publication: 2016
Language : English
Pages : 306
Rating : 3.5/5

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The Underground Railroad
This Post Has 23 Comments
  1. Completely agree with you on the half-baked characters front. I did enjoy reading this, but as for you I wasn’t completely blown away by it, and maybe that was because of the hype I had unrealistic expectations. I would have really liked to spend more time with the actual Railroad because I thought that was a fascinating idea.

  2. I’ve had this waiting to be read for some time but something puts me off – up till now I’d wondered if maybe it was getting too much praise and instinctively I thought it might not live up to that. I will get round to it though. I have however read Yaa Gyasi’s Homecoming and thought it was a brilliant read though a lot of mans cruelty to others was harrowing in places.

  3. Great review, Resh, and I had the same issue with the side characters that you did. Most of the time it just felt like they were in the way of the story I really wanted to focus on, which was Cora’s.

  4. I love your nuanced review of this. I did love this book, but maybe that’s because I read it fairly early on. Colson Whitehead is such an interesting writer. I’m slowly working my way through all of this books. He is definitely more on the cerebral side of things than the emotional side, at least that’s my opinion. I can see why readers might have a hard time connecting to the characters. Great review!

  5. A very interesting review. I agree, it’s important that these stories have a platform even if some of the elements (plot digressions, minor characters etc.) don’t quite come off. Fiction can often reach a wider audience than a documentary or opinion piece, so it’s good to see that this book is getting a lot of attention.

  6. I’ve heard great things about this book, and I love that–as you say–it’s well-researched. However, I was underwhelmed by Homegoing, so I’m afraid I would be very underwhelmed by The Underground Railroad. It’s too bad that many of the characters are underdeveloped. Great review, though!

  7. Wonderful review! I agree that the characters were a little hard to connect to HOWEVER it didn’t bother me as much because I felt the story was more focused on telling the history of slavery through Cora’s experiences. To me it was more about the plotline & experiences more than the characters. If the makes sense. I also read Homegoing this year as well, and feel this book has a similar feel: it is more about the experiences of the characters than the characters themselves. I think I enjoyed them both equally and am not sure I could pick one over the other.

  8. I’ve been seeing this everywhere lately and definitely need to read it at some point- it just deals with so many important issues. So even if it’s not as good as Homegoing (which I also need to read) I have to put this on my tbr. Love your review!

  9. This has been sitting on my to read list for a while, both bc 1) I like to wait and read consensus contemporary great books a few years after publication to form my own thoughts and 2) the opening salvo of the book is supposed to be really intense and I’m intimidated.

    1. I took quite a while to read this book. Once I put it down I did not get that urge to start reading it again. Partly this might be because I enjoyed Homegoing alot. I found the storytelling to be better in Homegoing while it is more honest in Underground Railroad. I would suggest you to read both the books in pairs. I always get such valuable inputs about books from you and I would be interested in your thoughts about the two. Let me know here or on Goodreads when you finish reading them. (I am more curious since most people liked one of the two books. I am Team Homegoing. But those who loved Underground Railroad were underwhelmed by Homegoing)

      1. Thanks Resh. I read and liked Homegoing last Fall – Yaa Gyasi came to a Texas book festival, and I actually got my copy signed! Really neat structure and good characters, even if the end, for me, was “Sound & Furied” (aka a hit you over the head with metaphor moment).

        When I read The Underground Railroad in a year or so, will def share my thoughts.

  10. I’m late reading this one, too, and am about 75 pages into it now, so I only scanned some parts of your review. It would be hard, at this point, however, for any book to stand up to the kind of hype that this book has had, both critically and popularly. My experience with Whitehead is only his novel Zone One, which is not at all your typical dystopian novel, but very slow and character-driven (and I just loved it – but i know those very aspects frustrated some readers, who may have had another kind of story in mind).

    Have you read Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes (named for the roster of Africans, renamed outside of Canada in some countries to Someone Knows My Name). They also made it into a mini-series on CBC television here (very loyal to the book, Hill was involved) and it received similar acclaim to Whitehead’s novel here in Canada but Hill’s does not include any mystical elements. Aminatta is an amazing character and this might be more of the kind of story you were craving…

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