Book Review: “The Underground Railroad”

Image showing the cover of Colson Whitehead's "The Underground Railroad."
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It could be some time before I read another book as powerful as Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” (affiliate link).

Cora is a third-generation slave. She backs into fleeing Randall, the Georgia plantation where she lives. But once on the run, Cora embraces her freedom, even as it takes various forms throughout the book.

Whitehead imagines the Underground Railroad to be a physical railroad under the ground. This allows Cora to travel farther, faster than she could otherwise.

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Because of this, Cora experiences laws and treatment of blacks across many states. Along the way, Cora meets other black Americans. Some are runaways like her, and others were born free in Northern states.

These occurrences show the task facing 19th Century African-Americans in existing in American society. You also can’t help but see parallels between the struggles of those in the book and African-Americans today.

Throughout the book, Cora’s propelled by a desire to live a life of freedom and peace. And she’s trying to keep one step ahead of a slave catcher named Ridgeway.

Ridgeway is not just a man hired to do a job. He’s a man possessed with righting the wrong of not having caught Cora’s mother, Mabel. Mabel ran away when Cora was a child.

The question of Mabel’s fate serves as more than a motivating device for Ridgeway. It also haunts Cora, who feels her mother abandoned her. The mystery of what became of Mabel provides an intriguing subplot throughout “The Underground Railroad” (affiliate link).

Book Review of “The Underground Railroad”

“The Underground Railroad” is an arresting book. In the novel, Whitehead plays with words, making them bend and fly to his fancy. Reading this story is pleasurable. If such an experience is possible while reading a book about racism.

Whitehead shows a masterful combination of research and composition. He hammers home the experience of a slave attempting to become a free woman. Routine tasks and requirements of your everyday life become monumental struggles in Cora’s plight. You see the overwhelming difficulty America’s slaves faced in the 19th Century.

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But you can’t help seeing something else. Is this a novel of historical fiction? Or is it a parable about black American’s struggles in the United States today? It’s this reason I recommend “The Underground Railroad.”

Perhaps a story’s greatest power is the ability to help us see through another’s eyes. We can think what we want about Black Lives Matter and other racial issues. But shouldn’t we try to understand the perspectives of those with whom we may disagree?

One difficulty in “The Underground Railroad” is how to view the whites who help the book’s runaway slaves. Is there a common theme in these white characters? Some are eager to help the runaways. Others lend an unwilling hand, forced to do so out of circumstance or obligation.

Of course, the lesson could be in the challenge of understanding the book’s “good” white characters. Not all white people are bad. But not all white people are saviors, even those playing a helpful part.

Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” is a powerful tale. It brings historical perspective and modern reflection. That it’s writing is exquisite makes the book an accomplished piece of art. And it’s use of story to paint a picture of being black in America today makes “The Underground Railroad” (affiliate link) a must-read. Perhaps, even, a new American classic.

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MORE REVIEWS OF “THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD”

Select quotes from “the underground railroad”

Image of a quote from "The Underground Railroad" reading "Cora’s mother and Ava grew up on the plantation at the same time. They were treated to the same Randall hospitality, the travesties so routine and familiar that they were a kind of weather, and the ones so imaginative in their monstrousness that the mind refused to accommodate them."

Image of a quote from "The Underground Railroad" reading "After landing in South Carolina, she realized that she had banished her mother not from sadness but from rage. She hated her. Having tasted freedom’s bounty, it was incomprehensible to Cora that Mabel had abandoned her to that hell."

Image of a quote from "The Underground Railroad" reading "A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality."

Image of a quote from "The Underground Railroad" reading "In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal."

Image of a quote from "The Underground Railroad" reading "Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits."

Image of a quote from "The Underground Railroad" reading "Here’s one delusion: that we can escape slavery. We can’t. Its scars will never fade."