Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead, Bryant Park, New York City, 2007
Colson Whitehead, Bryant Park, New York City, 2007

I read The Underground Railroad in the spring before the author, Colson Whitehead, visited my library for an author talk. Whitehead was booked to speak for our library almost a year before his book won both the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2016 National Book Award, the first book to win both in the same awards season since 1993. Whitehead is funny, blunt, and relaxed. He’s written numerous other books ranging from zombie fiction to a memoir about his time playing professional poker. The Underground Railroad is unlike any of his previous works in tone, theme, and subject.

The Underground Railroad is a fictional slave narrative borrowing from the tradition of autobiographical memoirs like 12 Years a Slave and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl that follows Cora, a runaway slave, as she navigates an alternative Antebellum America. In Whitehead’s reimagined America, the Underground Railroad isn’t metaphor, it’s literal. He takes it further than underground clanking, rickety, bellowing train cars, however. Whitehead borrows pieces from history and creates a series of American cities each grappling with the “problem” of African slaves in their own way. Don’t get caught up in the historical facts; in this case, fiction is truer than the truth.

201607-orig-obc-announcement-949x534Whitehead’s style is abrupt, almost harsh and rough with a notable lack of emotion and adjective. While this made it harder for me to connect emotionally to the protagonist, it complimented the inhuman nature of Cora’s story. The style is also quite literary: allusions to the contemporary Black American struggle were common and the structure of the book fits snuggly into the pantheon of social-science-fiction. Speculation about human society where each municipality has wildly different approaches to life with African slaves or former slaves was like jumping from warren to warren in Watership Down. No matter where Cora ends up, oppression is seething.

The Underground Railroad is violent and sad, nauseating and bleak. Hope and opportunity are repeatedly ripped–bloody and torn–from the page. Whitehead’s signature dark humor is buried deep underground and replaced with grotesque tableaus. I didn’t enjoy the book, but I’m not sure The Underground Railroad is a book that’s meant to be enjoyed. It was a quick read, and I recommend The Underground Railroad to anyone who wants a book that makes them think, likes layers of literary allusion and symbolism, and can stomach an American slave narrative.

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