Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (4/5)

7 Jun

This title was on the book club docket before COVID hit but hasn’t reappeared. I thought it was about time I tried to get through it and was excited to see that it’s been released as a mini-series on Amazon Prime. I’ll have to convince my husband to watch that with me soon

Cover image via Amazon

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Summary from Amazon:

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. An outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is on the cusp of womanhood—where greater pain awaits. And so when Caesar, a slave who has recently arrived from Virginia, urges her to join him on the Underground Railroad, she seizes the opportunity and escapes with him.

In Colson Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor: engineers and conductors operate a secret network of actual tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora embarks on a harrowing flight from one state to the next, encountering, like Gulliver, strange yet familiar iterations of her own world at each stop.

As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the terrors of the antebellum era, he weaves in the saga of our nation, from the brutal abduction of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is both the gripping tale of one woman’s will to escape the horrors of bondage—and a powerful meditation on the history we all share.

This is one example of why I don’t read summaries. I had no idea the railroad was going to be physical until it appeared. I thought the tracks were part of a metaphor up until the engine pulled in. I loved the idea of a twisting, winding railroad literally delivering people to freedom and better lives. Cora’s story of escape was well done and I liked how she was rightfully never fully safe in her time on the rails. I think a lot of this book was meant to shock and that the treatment of the slaves should have taken me aback more than it did. Having read Kindred by Octavia Butler a few months ago, the effect wasn’t as strong here because I’d been exposed to it recently in that work.

The characters all seemed very real to me. I could believe that Cora and Ceaser were brave enough to run. I could believe that Randall and Ridgeway could be so cruel. I believed in the kindness of the station masters and the fear that simmered under them. Whitehead gave them nervous energy that simmered in this book in a very exciting way.

Cora was easy to like in this story. She was brave and determined and she was fighting for something that you knew was right and just. She was a strong woman and it was hard not to like her. I appreciated that Whitehead made his hero a woman. While Ceasar’s story was strong and he could have been an appealing main character, I think the trauma of raped slave women is unique and wouldn’t have been captured in the same way with a male protagonist.

It’s hard to deny that there is racism in America today. While the treatment of Blacks and other minorities isn’t as deadly today as it was in Cora’s time, it still needs to be combated. It can seem daunting to support movements that seem to be against the government’s stance, such as defunding the police departments and getting rid of restrictive voting laws. While it’s not as deadly today as it was for supporters of free Blacks in the 1800s there can still be backlash. I saw friends and political figures from today when I looked at the allies in this book. I think a lot of the stories then are paralleled now, unfortunately. We may be past slavery, but we’re not past racism and its evils.

Colson Whitehead
Image via the author’s website

Cora and Ceasar’s stop in South Carolina was my favorite. I thought it was such an idyllic place at first until we started to see the evil intentions and traps that were lurking just under the surface. I thought these were revealed well and gave a sense of foreboding that was well done. Cora’s eventual escape was a point of great intensity in the book that I enjoyed.

I felt the ending of the book seemed a bit rushed. From the end of the Valentine Farm to the end of the book, things wrapped up quickly. I didn’t expect this book to have a neat bow on it, but I was hoping for a little more about Cora’s eventual peace which is teased. After so much suffering, I would have liked a moment of comfort. But I understand that Cora’s life was about pain and that’s why her story focused there.

The audiobook was narrated by Bahni Turpin and I’m still loving Turpin’s narration. This is my third time listening to a book with her and I’m looking forward to more in the future. She had great voices for all of the characters and tapped into Cora’s emotions well. She was serious when needed and lighthearted when appropriate. I’d listen to her other work in the future without hesitation.

America needs to remember how it brought Blacks to America. We have to remember that there has been slavery, repression, Jim Crow, and other evils that we still see today. I’ve heard about how we’ve ‘fixed’ the problems that are at the root of our issues and how racism is over and I can see that it’s not true. My job allows me to talk about Diversity and Inclusion at length and how it affects minorities and I’m surprised at how few people have this topic come up often in their lives. I think it’s important to read books like this and have your ideas challenged. Slavery is history but not ancient history. 

Writer’s Takeaway: The twist that Whitehead saved for the end was my favorite part. I won’t say too much here about it so no spoilers! I will say that he created a legend that lived for most of the story before it was resolved quickly at the end and had me rethink a lot of the book and opinions and comments that came out because of it. I’m interested to see how the screen adaptation has taken this.

A well done and thorough novel. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts: 
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: ‘If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails’ | Gerry in Literature
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead | The Book Stop 
Review: ‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead | Ephmereality 
The Underground Railroad | Afterlives of Slavery


4 Responses to “Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (4/5)”

  1. Rosie Amber June 7, 2021 at 1:50 PM #

    This is a book that I have my eye on for when I see a paperback copy.


    • Sam June 7, 2021 at 5:16 PM #

      Good luck! I think it will start showing up in used book sales as book clubs read it heavily again with the film adaptation.


  2. Book Club Mom June 7, 2021 at 4:47 PM #

    I recently read The Underground Railroad and enjoyed it very much. Have you read The Nickel Boys? I thought that was excellent. Thanks for sharing your review!


    • Sam June 7, 2021 at 5:17 PM #

      My sister in law said she liked it a lot, too! Glad you enjoyed it. Happy reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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