Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel the Underground Railroad is as uncomfortable as it gets – a worthy read, though not an enjoyable one.

In Whitehead’s latest novel, the underground railroad (used to spirit slaves to safety in 19th century America) is re-imagined with actual trains, tracks, stations and conductors, rather than the secret walking routes and safe houses of history.

Cora, a slave on a brutal cotton plantation in Georgia, hops on the underground railroad to escape to a better life – stopping in South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Indiana as she makes her faltering bid for freedom.

As Cora embarks on her journey, the conductor warns her,

“Every state is different… Each one a state of possibility, with its own customs and way of doing things. Moving through them, you’ll see the breadth of country before you reach the final stop”

The conductor’s warning turns out to be an illusion. Instead of  every kind of American life, what Cora sees as she crosses the US is every different kind of prejudice and cruelty that we are capable of.

After escaping the Georgian plantation, Cora arrives in a North Carolina, where she discovers the shackles of chattel slavery have been swapped for eugenics. The result is terrifying.

In South Carolina, Cora hides in a small attic space as as patrolmen knock on the doors and rifle through houses looking for black people to hang in the square. The similarities between Anne Frank and the Nazis are unmissable.

In the end, Cora realizes that the American dream isn’t really a a dream at all:

And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes–believes with all its heart–that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.

The Underground Railroad has a lot packed into it – and the message at it’s heart is a lot darker than I was expecting (certainly a lot darker than I’d expect to read in a book that won the Pulitzer).

But for all of this, I just couldn’t love it. Probably because Whitehead uses about six different genres on the journey, so it doesn’t hang together like I’d want a novel to – the different sections could almost be different books were it not for the recurring characters in each.

In the end, I’d say this is a powerful book, if not a good a one. You won’t regret picking it though. If I was in the business of giving out stars, it would be a solid three out of five.

So what do you think? Have you read it? Did you like it? Would you recommend it?

Let me know in the comments!

Interested in more Pulitzer Prize winners? Then check this page out.


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