The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Underground Railroad is historical fiction based on the many stories of enslaved African Americans in the early to mid-1800s.
This fictional story revolves around Cora, whose grandmother was taken from Africa; Cora and her mother were born on American soil to life on a plantation. It was brutal, made worse after Cora’s mother escaped. Cora was mis-treated and ostracised by many of the other slaves as well as the overseers and plantation owners.
Cora’s own dreams of ‘running’ are expedited after she tries to save another slave from a beating. Fellow slave Caesar invites her to escape with him; he has a friend who can get them away via the underground rail network.
This is Cora’s journey; the highs and the lows. The author gives the reader a window into the era, showing how group mentality and peer pressure make neighbour fear neighbour and rips families apart. This isn’t a light read, it is harrowing on so many levels.
I liked how the author used real trains as a metaphor for the brave souls who risked their own lives to help the runaways. Sadly, similar situations repeat themselves over and over in human history; I immediately thought of the world wars. This book has been on my ‘wish list’ for a while and I was glad when I was recently given a copy.
View all my reviews on Goodreads
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.