I’d not heard of this book until Diverse Books Club announced it as one of their September reads. Naturally, after reading the synopsis, I had to get myself a copy and join in.
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. All the slaves lead a hellish existence, but Cora has it worse than most; she is an outcast even among her fellow Africans and she is approaching womanhood, where it is clear even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North.
In Whitehead’s razor-sharp imagining of the antebellum South, the Underground Railroad has assumed a physical form: a dilapidated box car pulled along subterranean tracks by a steam locomotive, picking up fugitives wherever it can. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But its placid surface masks an infernal scheme designed for its unknowing black inhabitants. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher sent to find Cora, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
At each stop on her journey, Cora encounters a different world. As Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once the story of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shatteringly powerful meditation on history.
The Underground Railroad details Cora’s journey as she escapes from a cotton plantation. It’s detailed in such a way that you’re filled with hope and wonder as you read it. Hope that Cora doesn’t get caught, and wonder at the people she’ll meet on her journey. It’s difficult to elaborate on this plot without spoilers because this is one of those books that you need to read for yourself, journey alongside Cora and meet the people she meets and experience what she experiences.
The ‘Underground Railroad’ was a network of secret routes, roads and safe-houses which were used to help slaves escape into free states and into Canada so I loved Whiteheads use of a physical railway cart that takes Cora from place to place. It added a small element of magical realism to the novel because we are never told – who built the railroad, where do they lead, who operates them – it’s risky and plans change all the time, yet it’s just known when the cart will arrive and that someone will be at the other end to help. I liked that these questions weren’t answered because in a way it made this book powerful. In the sense that this is fiction that reflects a horrendous time in history and so this element of wonder reflects the secrecy that was implemented when the ‘Underground Railroad’ was being used.
There was one point during this book that I found particularly hard to read, it comes quite early on and is only a paragraph or two but it’s horrific. It details the punishment given to one of the slaves after he’s caught trying to escape. It’s graphic and it’s just shocking to think one human can treat another human that way – it makes me so mad! If you can make it through that encounter without experiencing too much distress, then you’ll be fine for the rest of the novel. Others may read this book and feel it had many upsetting parts but the blurb states – “All slaves lead a hellish existence” – so it’s not going to be all candyfloss and butterflies.
And Ridgeway, what an awful man! You’ll find plenty of awful characters in this novel but you’ll also find some wonderful characters, characters who risk their lives to help other, and more touchingly, characters who manage to find moments of happiness amongst so much pain.
Whitehead did throw in a lil’ curveball towards the end of this novel that made me rather emotional, I can’t elaborate without spoiling it but you just wish there was some way that news could spread.
To say, ‘I enjoyed this book’, isn’t quite the right phrase due to the themes featured, but it is a very good book. However, there were times it felt a little disjointed – I’d be totally gripped for several chapters and then I’d find my mind had drifted to other things and I had to bring myself back to plot and pay attention to what I was reading. That’s what stopped this being a five-star read for me. I loved the way the characters, good and bad, were portrayed and the journey Whitehead crafted for Cora but I don’t want to have to force myself into a novel, I want it to pull me in. I feel a little hypocritical because I feel like this review is disjointed but I found this novel extremely hard to review so I just threw all my thoughts in as they came.