I just finished Coleson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Before I give my review, I would like to take a moment to speak to the fact that this book won The National Book Award. That is no small feat. Coleson Whitehead is a gifted writer and he crafts what he says deliberately and does not waste words. And, while his writing, for lack of a better term, is beautiful it is not excessive and self-indulgent.
So…a brief synopsis…
Cora, a slave on the Randall cotton plantation in Georgia, is a head-strong and capable young woman who endures countless atrocities at the hands of her owner and her fellow slaves. Cora and her quest to be free is the focal point of the novel. When Cora meets Caesar a new arrival to the Randall plantation, and he asks her to join him on an escape attempt, she agrees. The rest of the narrative follows her state by state quest for freedom. In order to move from state to state, Cora utilizes the Underground Railroad which Whitehead reimagines as an actual system of conductors, railcars and stops that transports slaves from one destination to another. Along the way she encounters and is both helped, hindered, and abused by different characters. Whitehead is thorough in fleshing out the backstories of many of these characters. One such character is Ridgeway, a notorious slave catcher who prides himself on hunting down runaways and returning them to their owners. He is in pursuit of Cora for a majority of the novel.
I found this novel heartbreaking at points, and Whitehead’s descriptions of slave life and the treatment of the black population are harrowing and inexcusable. However, throughout the novel there are perspective shifts and time jumps that made it hard for me to stay invested in the heart of the story. The component of magical realism (the underground railroad being an actual train with no history or background to explain it) present in the novel will appeal to the taste of some readers, but it did not to mine. For me, I wish the focus would have remained on Cora and her journey. While reading, I was incredibly impacted by individual scenes, but not the over-arching story, which can be attributed (for me) to the time/perspective shifts throughout the narrative. I would never discourage a reader from this ambitious novel, because it is eye-opening and unique. However, there were a few narrative choices that I could just not get past which tarnished my reading experience.
That being said, I did love Cora and all she represented, and I rooted for her throughout the duration of the novel.
Bottom Line: This novel is an important look at slave life and is worth the investment in time it takes to read it, if only for Whitehead’s spectacular command of the written word. For me, there were issues in several of the narrative choices which affected my overall enjoyment and rating of the novel. My rating is a 3.5/5.