“She never got Royal to tell her about the men and women who made the underground railroad. The ones who excavated a million tons of rock and dirt, toiled in the belly of the earth for the deliverance of slaves like her. Who stood with all those other souls who took runaways into their homes, fed them, carried them north on their backs, died for them. The station masters and conductors and sympathizers. Who are you after you finish something this magnificent – in constructing it you have also journeyed through it, to the other side. On one end there was who you were before you went underground, and on the other end a new person steps out into the light. The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath, the miracle you made with your sweat and blood. The secret triumph you keep in your heart. – Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad
Continuing my post-election reading and holiday gift suggestions, I just finished The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which won this year’s National Book Award and many say is destined to become an American classic.
The Underground Railroad was an Oprah Book Club selection. In fact, Oprah Winfrey was so excited about the novel that she persuaded the publisher to release it over a month early so she could feature it as her next book club choice.
As Oprah says, there is “no better book for our times,” given the Black Lives Matter movement and our divisive political landscape.
Cora is a young, orphaned slave whose entire life has been spent on a Georgia plantation. She decides to run and is hunted by Ridgeway, a slave catcher, as she makes her way north.
At first blush, The Underground Railroad reads like historical fiction, but as the story unfolds it becomes clear that Cora is caught in a dystopia with many dimensions, depending on which state she happens to be in. The underground railroad is a literal tunnel built beneath the ground with secret way stations. Each state that Cora passes through embodies a unique, nightmarish vision of slavery in America.
Colson Whitehead has said that he had the idea for this novel some sixteen years ago, but didn’t feel he had the chops as a writer to pull it off until his mid forties.
I think The Underground Railroad is a masterpiece but, scanning the reviews on Goodreads, I noticed that, while most readers gave it five stars, others were lukewarm or disappointed. A common complaint was that Cora is one-dimensional; readers had a hard time feeling an emotional connection with Cora and some of the other characters.
For me, this wasn’t a problem, maybe because I view the characters as mythic, and so my expectations were different. In her New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani says the novel is “almost hallucinatory,” and that is what I felt, too. Rather than at an emotional distance, I was trapped along with the desperate characters in The Underground Railroad and the people trying to help them. I have a much greater appreciation for the intergenerational strength and resilience of blacks in America and the enormous risks taken by abolitionists and later by activists in the civil rights movement.
Nonetheless, I can see how this novel may not appeal to some readers. I would say it’s well worth picking up: at the very least, you’ll be reading the novel everyone is talking about.
“Cora ran her hand along the wall of the tunnel, the ridges and pockets. Her fingers danced over valleys, rivers, the peaks of mountains, the contours of a new nation hidden beneath the old. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.”
I’m not fond of the network morning shows, but here is a quick introduction to Colson Whitehead and his novel:
Have you read The Underground Railroad? What did you think?