Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

This book had been on my radar for a while, since it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2017. The wait list at my library was well over 400 people, so I was happy when I finally got my copy.

Some spoilers are below! Read with caution.

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Summary:

Cora, a slave on a Georgia plantation, struggles with her horrific life in bondage. As an outsider among her fellow slaves, Cora decides to make an escape for freedom with another slave, Caesar. They make their way north on an underground railroad.

Cora’s flight doesn't end with her first glimpse of safety. She's personally targeted by the slave catcher Ridgeway and has to fight her way out of various situations, each with a different, terrifying twist. Her courage and bravery never leave her, but her efforts for freedom might not succeed.

My Thoughts:

There were parts of this book that I really enjoyed or was very moved by, but then other parts dragged on. I think Whitehead’s writing style just isn’t for me. There were enough beautifully written moments, however, that I'd gladly read another one of his books before deciding for sure.

I liked the moments where the characters stopped to think about what truly defines freedom. They questioned their surroundings and the events that were taking place. These deeper moments interspersed in action scenes are what made the novel profound and the great parts great.

One of the “great” parts of Cora’s story - the one that touched me the most - was when she was hiding in the attic, and I think that was because she was there long enough for me to actually relate to the character. (“Great” here meaning emotionally powerful, it wasn’t a happy or wonderful event by any stretch of the imagination.) I felt immersed in the horrific situation. I felt claustrophobic, nauseous, and scared right along with Cora in those pages.

I felt detached from her at times, though, because Whitehead had this habit of stopping the story at a dramatic moment to flashback to another character that was already long gone. And then, when the flashback was over, it skipped ahead and I felt like I had missed something important. The only time I liked the flashback was when it was Cora’s mother, even though it jerked me out of Cora’s flight. Honestly, the mother's scene might’ve been my favorite in the book. It was haunting and heartbreaking; I felt like I was living some eternal moment. I just wish it had come at a different point in the story so I could’ve been focused on Cora, too.

Another thing that made this book feel a little off to me was the timing of everything. This book was pre-Civil War but I kept feeling like it was early 1900’s. The railroad itself was an impressive engineering feat, an underground tunnel that could handle the smoke and size of a full engine, but the completion of such was project was never explained at all. It was hard for me to suspend disbelief and accept it at that point in history. I mean, the DC metro in 2017 catches fire all the time, how did this railroad work two hundred years ago?! (I also wanted the railroad to be used in the story more.) Timing was also off in the eugenics experiments. I really appreciated that Whitehead chose to use those true, historical events in the story, but including it decades before it actually happened in the real world didn't help my confusion over the timeline.

In conclusion, this book sometimes felt impersonal and distant when all I wanted was to be moved by the situations. It's an intriguing concept with many high points and I understand why so it received so many awards. Still, I think I'd recommend Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing over this one. I connected to her characters a little more.

Rating:

The Underground Railroad was a 3.5/5 for me (rounded up to 4 on Goodreads). It was a great read but not perfect; however, if you’ve been considering reading it you absolutely should!