Not Pleasant, but Very Good: Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad

It doesn’t happen often that a Pulitzer Prize winner is also a genre novel, but Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad is just that, and winner/nominee for many other awards at that. I can see why and I look forward to reading more of his fiction, but I can’t say that this book was in any way fun to read. It doesn’t take a genius to guess why.

by Colson Whitehead

Published: Doubleday, 2016
322 pages
My rating:

Opening line: The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.

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.

This is such a hard book to talk about, not only because of its subject matter but also because it always feels a little strange to me discussing a book that has won so many prizes and so much acclaim. You know the feeling when you think you aren’t really allowed to dislike something because the Pulitzer and the National Book Award and Oprah all say this is great, so surely, it must be great. Well, in this case, I have it easy because I did find the book very, very good, albeit not really enjoyable.

The story follows Cora, a slave on a Georgia cotton plantation, but Whitehead introduces us to her through her grandmother Ajarry, who was taken by white men from her home, put on a ship, and made to work hard physical labor. This opening chapter may seem like a fast forward through one of the most terrible times in history but it also does an amazing job of creating a character – Ajarry – without any effort. This woman, who was sold and re-sold, beaten and hurt, nevertheless held fast to her strength and went on to have a daughter, Mabel, and eventually a granddaughter, Cora. The only thing they can be said to own is a tiny little plot next to the slaves’ quarters, where they can plant their own vegetables.

When the book opens, Ajarry is long dead, and Cora is alone. Her mother Mabel isn’t dead, however, but rather the only slave to ever successfully escape from the plantation! Even slave catchers couldn’t find her. While Cora hasn’t ever really forgiven her for leaving her only child behind to fend for herself, she has also made her own place in this world, among the outcasts. So when Caesar approaches her and asks her to run away with him, her first instinct is to say no. But, as you can guess from the book’s title, eventually she agrees. Caesar considers her his lucky charm, the girl whose mother made it, and off they run toward a life of freedom.

The fantastical element of this book is the Underground Railroad being an actual railroad that actually runs underground. Cora and Caesar take it to ride north and what follows are several chapters that each chronicle different stations on the Railroad. To say too much about those would be spoiling the book, but I do want to mention how well Whitehead managed to build entire worlds in just a few pages. This isn’t a very long and it covers a lot of places, times, and people. Yet the author managed to make each of them feel real. Cora meets all sorts of people, both good and not-so-good. There are some that get away, others who get caught, yet others whose fate Cora never learns. There was something utterly realistic about this not knowing.

While I don’t want to talk about the different Railway stations or what Cora finds there in detail, I do want to warn readers. You can imagine that a book set on a plantation and with a slave catcher character, no less, will have some scenes of violence. But trust me when I say this, even if you think you’re prepared, it hits you right in the guts! I have read some pretty violent books in my life and I fully expected to read about whippings and maybe lynchings in this novel. But still, Colson Whitehead managed to describe truly horrible things that people do to other people, and he also managed to sneak them in there when they weren’t all that expected. He doesn’t linger on the violence and it’s not like this is all the book is about, but still: be prepared when you pick this up.

Overall, I was very impressed with both the world Colson Whitehead is painting in this slim volume as well as the characters and how real they all feel. There is a constant sense of unease, even when Cora has reached a place that seems to be safe (at least for a while), and then there are harrowing sequences that have stuck in my mind and probably won’t go away very soon. I see why this has won so many awards. It is an incredibly well written book that shows different aspects of a time we’d rather not look at too closely. It made me uncomfortable, it made me incredibly sad, but it also does that magical thing that books can do: It gave me hope.

Reading this was not what I’d call a fun experience, but it was a rewarding one. I recommend this book to anyone who’d like to take a glimpse into this dark chapter of humanity’s past. If you have the stomach for it.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good!

3 thoughts on “Not Pleasant, but Very Good: Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad

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