Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad
by
Colson Whitehead

Rating:

Cora is a young slave on the Randall cotton plantation in antebellum Georgia when Caesar approaches her with a plan to escape. He tells her she will be his good luck charm, but he’s picked her because he knows she can make it. Cora’s strong and determined personality will help them escape the brutal treatment they can no longer endure. And as a young woman, she is now defenseless against Terrance Randall’s abuse. Cora’s mother, Mabel ran for her own freedom when Cora was a girl. Now Cora is an outcast living on the plantation’s “hob,” a place where slaves are banished by other slaves.

Shortly after they run, they are chased by a group of slave catchers and Cora kills a boy who attacks her. Via the Underground Railroad, they find their way to safety in South Carolina. But something isn’t right and Cora is soon on the run again. And she’s being pursued by a slave catcher named Ridgeway whose reputation is at stake. Ridgeway failed to capture Mabel when she ran. Now he’s determined to succeed and restore Terrance’s confidence in him.

In Whitehead’s interpretation, station agents from a real underground railroad system, built by blacks and white supporters of freedom, help Cora move from state to state. The risks are great for Cora and those who help her and some will pay with their lives.

What do I say about a book like this, read at a time like this? Though Whitehead’s depiction of slavery and oppression is from a grim time in American history where slavery in the south was accepted, his characters’ messages continue to ring true. Cora’s story is a reflection of innumerable stories of how poorly blacks have been treated in this country.

What makes this book excellent is how Whitehead’s characters represent complicated and nuanced views of slavery and oppression.

For example, Colson offers a keen insight into Ridgeway’s belief in what his own father taught him about a Great Spirit. He tells Cora, “All these years later, I prefer the American spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the New to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription—the American imperative.” That’s a scary quote, but these are the shameful words that others throughout history and in present day have spoken.

Cora’s fight for her own freedom is the most central to the story because it represents an imperative for basic human rights. The people who help her, blacks and whites, have varied reasons for helping and for me, offer hope as I relate her story to present time. White shop and saloon owners who live above railroad stations, station agents, and citizens offer help. In particular, Martin Wells, a white station manager in North Carolina, risks his family’s life to hide runaways in his attic, despite his wife’s opposition. His wife, though, is terrified and has her own complicated story. Elijah Lander is a biracial and outspoken abolitionist, who grew up in privilege and uses his stature to make speeches and distribute pamphlets.

One complicated and realistic character is Mingo, a former slave who purchased his own freedom and believes blacks should disassociate themselves from weaker blacks. For Mingo, his cause is his own and his view is narrow.

But the character who tugs at my conscience is John Valentine, a light-skinned Ethiopian who marries a black woman and buys her freedom. He starts a farm in Indiana to help runaways. Valentine explains,

I didn’t grow up the way you did. My mother never feared for my safety. No trader was going to snatch me in the night and sell me South. The whites saw the color of my skin, and that sufficed to let me be. I told myself I was doing nothing wrong, but I conducted myself in ignorance all my days.”

Something in the front of my mind.

Thanks for reading.

 

32 thoughts on “Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

  1. Great book, and an excellent and timely review, Barb. I read this a few years ago in a book club. It was powerful then, and I’m sure it is even more so now. Thanks for the post. Be well.

    1. Hi Kim – thanks so much for stopping by. Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize for this. That’s why I picked it up, but now it is even more relevant. Hope you are doing well. 🙂

  2. A very timely review, Barbara, and one that gave me enough information to make a decision on reading it. I group up in the deep south and lived there through the days of the Civil Rights movement. I saw more prejudice and abuse than I care to ever remember, but I do remember when I read something like this book or watch the news filled with stories like Gordon Floyd’s. Thanks for helping me to choose to read this. Off to put it on hold at my library.

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