The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

A Book Review *No Spoilers*

This novel was published in 2016 but is set on a cotton plantation in the 19th Century and draws from slavery events in the USA. It follows the life of Cora and the people she comes into contact with on her journey to escape her hellish lifestyle. The blurb states ‘The Underground Railroad is the story of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage, and a shatteringly powerful meditation on history and the unfulfilled promises of the present day.’

The key themes for me were the treatment of Black people by both ordinary White folk and slave owners; distrust; fear of loss, and assumptions versus truths about family history.

My standout thoughts during and after reading The Underground Railroad were around the treatment of humans (and all organisms). I almost assumed that Cora would get used to her poor-quality of life – that she would perhaps surrender to it – but you can’t turn people into robots or take the human part out of them. No matter how much you abuse someone, they still feel the pain, and they feel it deeply. Even if you expect to be assaulted, your body can’t prepare itself in the same way that you brain can, and even your brain can’t prepare itself fully. This book doesn’t romanticise a thing but it draws you in and reminds you of the cruelty and horror of that time just when you were getting too snuggly with the characters.

For the first few chapters, a lot of characters’ names were mentioned and I panicked that I was meant to be keeping track of them all. I decided that this was an impossibility and so I let them go over my head. Once I had made a decent dent in the book, things started to click: the multiple storylines that I had invested in merged together and the characters who I needed to be keeping tabs on stuck and were easily recalled. It actually felt quintessential that the book was written this way in the first half as it represented the scattered, fractured, inconsistent lives of slaves. Cora, in particular, had a jigsaw piece-style storyline which was perfectly reflected in the mixed chronology of the book. I didn’t have to concentrate as hard as I worried I might need to early on, as Whitehead managed to embed in my subconscious the parts that would be referenced later.

I am reviewing and recommending this book in recognition of Black History Month this October. The Underground Railroad was a good choice where I could celebrate a modern Black author’s work and learn more about the history of Black people, affecting my perception of the current world. It can be unfortunately easy to decide what type of book you like to read, music you like to listen to, even conversations you like to have and not explore things beyond those borders. This was not my usual type of book in terms of writing style and genre but I enjoyed it and learnt a lot. I really appreciate and support Black History Month for flagging to me that I hadn’t read anything like The Underground Railroad before and maybe this is a reflection of my implicit bias. I have read a lot about Black history and people of colour in the non-fiction category – and this is my preferred genre – but I read more fiction nowadays than I used to and I think my choices in this realm are mostly White-centric. I definitely feel encouraged to choose more books by authors of colour and realise when I’m getting too caught up in similarity and need to explore other important topics.

The Underground Railroad closes with a poignant final sentence, echoing what I felt throughout: that trauma doesn’t leave people. It was really apparent how trauma on that level, to that many people, doesn’t have to be experienced by people in the 21st Century for the impact to not leave that race. It doesn’t surprise me whatsoever that people still feel so connected to their ancestors today and that undoing the negative feelings between White and Black people can feel like an impossible task at times. A line that I wrote down from The Underground Railroad was ‘White people won’t change overnight’. It’s silly to be unrealistically optimistic about eradicating racism, and we must never forget or understate its history, but I am hopeful that with honesty, support and awareness, we can improve.