Review: The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Random House Audio, 2016.  9 CDs covering 10 hours and 50 minutes.  Also available in Hardcover from Doubleday.Cover: The Undergorund Railroad

The Underground Railroad depicts the life of Cora, a young slave woman in the pre-Civil War South.  As the book opens, we gain a familial background for Cora and her mother and grandmother’s plights provide clues to Cora’s character.  From there, we see life on the Georgia cotton plantation on which Cora was a slave and how she was treated, both by her white masters and fellow black slaves.  Neither group was kind.  However, she does have a few friends, once of which is Cesar.  At Cesar was the mastermind behind their escape.

As Cora journeys away from the plantation, readers will see more than the struggles of following the Underground Railroad.  We also see Cora growing into an independent woman.  Then along that path, readers will gain an understanding to living under an assumed identity, living in hiding spots en route, and the pressure of being chased, knowing that if caught, one’s life may be forfeited.

Overall, I completely understand why this novel won the National Book Award.  Not only does it address a tough topic, but it does so from the perspective of an African-American writer.  Whitehead is thus able to better show the struggles African-Americans went through during the era of slavery since many of the prejudices and stereotypes still exist today.  In comparison, take Susan Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings. Yes, slavery is addressed and one character is a slave, but she is Caucasian.  How can she really understand what it is like to be discriminated against based on race?  That is one reason why The Underground Railroad is so powerful.

Looking more at the little details versus the overall picture, there is much to say.  The language was rough at the beginning, as Cora started out uneducated, but her vocabulary improved as she experienced the world and took classes.  Whitehead used vivid imagery to evoke emotion, so one could feel like they were in Cora’s shoes, which only added to the strength of this novel.  His more descriptive imagery of the Underground Railroad, which depicted it as an actual railroad, still has a basis in truth.  For example, the train car’s windows were covered enclosing the escapees in darkness.  This evokes the fact real-life runaway slaves traveled by night. And this is but one example.  This this time, I listened to the audiobook (though with my commute it took 5 weeks to go through; it’s a ten minute drive each way in addition to two longer trips taken).  The narrator’s voice sounded genuine and like the yesteryears.  While I do not know the tones used in the 1800s, Bahni Turpin evokes just what I thought they would be with a dose of the Southern twang most would recognize.  Turpin also did a great job changing her voice to reflect the character.

So, do you think you will read The Underground Railroad, if you haven’t already?  If you have read the novel, what did you think?

My review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.

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