Imagine if the underground railroad were, literally, a railroad that had been constructed under the United States. Who would build it? Who would run it?
Colson Whitehead does this in his historical fiction novel, The Underground Railroad. Cora, a third generation slave on a Georgia plantation, follows in her mother’s footsteps and escapes north on the underground railroad. Along the way, she encounters people of different races and classes who help or hinder her progress.
And Whitehead answers the question as to who would have built this hypothetical real underground railroad – slaves, of course. Who else?
What I Liked
A writing professor I studied with in college explained in one lecture that the plot is what a story or novel is about. But on a deeper level, it has an “aboutness” – not what happens, but the greater purpose of the writing. Maybe to make the reader feel a particular emotion, or explore a difficult concept. At its core, The Underground Railroad is really about the brutality of slavery and the pervasiveness of racism.
This set the stakes appropriately high and made the action more real. I’ve criticized movies before for setting the stakes too low — I can’t bring myself to care what happens to the characters along the way, or have a hard time getting involved because it’s too predictable. This is not the case in The Underground Railroad. Each of Cora’s near brushes with getting caught or killed seemed real – the world was big and realistic enough that the story would have gone on without her in it, as it did for so many.
Also, there’s a big twist in the story of Mabel, Cora’s mother, that is revealed just before the book’s conclusion. It’s so heart-wrenching and really got under my skin; it completely changed the way I felt about the whole novel.
What I Didn’t Like
It took me a while to get a feel for the structure of the novel – the majority of the story is told in long chapters, each set in one state that Cora spends time in during her journey north, told in the third person from Cora’s perspective. In between each is a short chapter, character study really, of one of the tertiary characters from Cora’s life, from her mother and grandmother to the slave catcher pursuing her. These are told in the third person omniscient. They added a lot to the story, and deserved their place in it, but I found the changing perspectives a bit jarring.
The Underground Railroad is a grim, haunting story but excellent and worth reading. Publishers Weekly gave the novel a starred review.