Book Review: “The Underground Railroad”, by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead‘s stunning, gut-wrenching novel, The Underground Railroad, was published in 2016. It landed on the New York Times bestseller list and won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award the same year. Four years later, the book couldn’t be more timely as the country grapples with the harrowing legacy of slavery and the deep scars the institution left on generations of Black Americans.

Whitehead’s book is fiction, and he deploys an interesting story device that at first blush seems unusual, if not potentially distracting: in his narrative, the Underground Railroad isn’t a metaphor for the network of safe houses and secure routes that enslaved Black people used to escape from bondage, as we were taught in history classes. Rather, it’s a literal, Harry Potter-like, almost magical railway built and operating deep beneath the earth, sometimes dozens of feet below the surface. Underground railroad stations dot the Southern landscape in Whitehead’s book, its existence known only to a mysterious few in each location, its secret shared only with those desperate slaves lucky enough to meet one of its stationmasters.

Invoking Harry Potter, though, only extends the metaphor so far. While some of the stations the novel’s heroine, a young girl named Cora, encounters in her years-long journey to freedom seem to resemble the gleaming, smoky stations of J.K. Rowling’s imagination, some of them are just barely more than dirty, blackened holes in the ground, tucked under unassuming cottages in remote woods. She never knows where she’s headed, or how long it will take her to get there, and she only knows what lies in wait for her once she emerges from the depths. Even then, more remains unknown, and part of the shivery experience of reading the book is not knowing her fate along with her.

Whitehead peoples the story with strong, vibrant characters, not all of whom are what they seem. Cora, born a slave on a cotton farm in Georgia to a mother who escapes when Cora was very young, sets off with a trusted friend one tense night, her eyes searching the gloom for the portal through which she hopes to find freedom, joy, her long long mother.

As she traverses the blood-stained territories of the South, she picks up friends along the way — White and Black, evil and good — and tries to shed the horrifying memories of her life on the farm, where brutal violence was a daily visitor on Black bodies, inflicted most often by the White slaveholders and their employees but on occasion by Black men and women on the weakest among them. She loses some friends, sometimes in the most gruesome way, and halfway through the book the narrative shifts slightly to focus on the infamous slave catcher tasked with finding her. Ridgeway oozes malevolence, but he’s just the most prominent in a long, exhausting line of men and women — some of them anonymous figures in a gleeful crowd lingering underneath a noose — whose lust for Black death and suffering Cora must endure and survive.

This is not an easy book, but it is a critical and necessary one to read. Whitehead maintains an unhurried pace throughout the story, the scenes of violence all the more devastating for their lack of sentimentality or color. Even when Cora isn’t on the page, and the perspective shifts to a different character, Cora’s strong, resolute presence looms over every page, putting a vivid face and voice to the cold reality of slavery.

If you grew up imagining that life under slavery was barely bearable, perhaps filtered behind a screen of plantation gentility and a sky lit by lazy summer suns, The Underground Railroad will be a savage shock of awareness. Read this book to understand the fundamental roots of White violence on Black bodies, and why this history must never be forgotten.

Note: Want to support local businesses? Buy this book from Lithic Bookshop in Fruita! If they don’t have it in stock, they can order it for you online and notify you when it arrives.

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