Book Recommendation: The Underground Railroad

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“She smiled at Chester, and Lovey and the women from her cabin, with brevity and efficiency. Like when you see the shadow of a bird on the ground but look up and nothing’s there. She subsisted on rations, in everything. Caesar had never spoken to her but had this figured out about her. It was sensible: she knew the preciousness of what little she called her own.” Colson Whitehead, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

Publisher Synopsis:

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, the #1 New York Times bestseller from Colson Whitehead, a magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave’s adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

My Recommendation: 

National Book Award. Pulitzer Prize. Oprah’s Book Club. New York Times Bestseller.

Well deserved.

Colson Whitehead’s THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD starts with whispers, like murmuring voices around a campfire–let us tell you this story–and grows to a roar. The novel’s nucleus is Cora, a woman enslaved in Georgia, on the run literally and figuratively. Her inheritance is abandonment, but it is what she believes about her mother’s running so many years before that gives Cora the fuel and fire she needs for her own journey.

Whitehead’s unique use of an actual underground railroad is assured, convincing, and a perfect metaphor for the continual descent into darkness and rebirth at each stop. The brutality in this novel is swift–sucker punches, heartbreak over and over, chapters that require closing and mourning before moving on. I recommend allowing that space between sections, especially as one nears the end of the novel. It makes the book more of an experience and settles it deeply in the bones.

Though set in a distant past, the novel is not only relevant but arguably necessary to the discussion of contemporary issues of race in our country. Whitehead is never sentimental or didactic, and his exploration of what we carry from our ancestors is key if there is to be hope for reconciliation in the future.

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD should be taught in literature programs, put on film and shown in theaters, and included in the American literary canon. If we carry a piece of the books we read with us forever, I am glad I now carry THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD. I give Colson Whitehead’s brilliant novel my highest recommendation.

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3 thoughts on “Book Recommendation: The Underground Railroad

  1. Melissa Crytzer Fry says:

    Saw your review on Goodreads as well, Erika. Fabulous. I’d been waffling about this book BECAUSE of the literal railroad depiction, but after listening to Colson speak at the Tucson Festival of Books, I changed my mind (he told us, as a child, he always thought of the UGRR as a real RR, and the inception of the book really started then!). Though I haven’t read it, your wonderful review makes me want to bump it up on the list. I enjoy Civil War-era books, and while I understand this book takes some liberties with time/events, I think I’m nearly ready for it! Thanks for the great review.

    • erikarobuck says:

      I had all the same reservations, but it was so well done. It didn’t feel at all like fantasy. I look forward to hear what you think.

      • Melissa Crytzer Fry says:

        You’ve convinced me to give it a go — ahem — as soon as I get through the other six waiting on my shelf! 😉

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