Book Review Friday: The Underground Railroad

“A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in the universality.”

I picked up Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad after searching my local library database for new literature about the Underground Railroad. This book was recently featured in Oprah’s Book Club and won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. The author took a difficult topic and put it in an easy format for reading. He uses different perspectives and situations to address major issues of slavery that most authors are afraid to write down or mention. This book does not hide the cruelty, but it doesn’t feel like a vicious rant either. His writing asks readers to think about the past and how it is narrated.

Cora is a slave that was abandoned by her mother at a young age on the plantation. Her mother managed to escape and remain free which was a huge feat in the early days. A fellow slave approaches Cora about escaping with the assistance of the Underground Railroad. After intervening for another slave being beaten, she finally decides to escape with Cesar. She ends up killing a white man during the escape which raises the stakes for their capture. They are assisted by the Underground Railroad that according to Whitehead truly exists as an underground network of railway and old train cars that come along intermittently with no set destination. They settle in South Carolina for a while where Cora starts to feel safe. She has a job working at the Museum of Natural Wonders in their live history displays. This part of the book bothered me more than I care to admit. She is put on display as a slave in sections such as Typical Day on the Plantation and Life on the Slave Ship. In addition to this work she is taken to a doctor and realizes they are sterilizing patients and injecting some with syphilis for “research purposes.” They are discovered in South Carolina and must move forward, but Cora is separated and fears Cesar is dead. She is then held in an attic in North Carolina for an extended period before being caught. North Carolina features a barrage of death with the town square holding a hanging each week of a slave or those that helped them. The streets are lined with hanging bodies. This is the first novel I’ve read that mentions bodies hanging along the road. This detail just added to my perspective of the time. I can only see what I have learned from the past, but if you allow your imagination to see past what you know and the possibilities of what actually occurred you find the brutality is more than many could bear. This wasn’t that long ago, and these slave owners and catchers are human just like me. Where was their remorse? Their conscience? I don’t understand how cruelty so deep can form in a person that they no longer see a human being but property. I understand social constraints, but the choice of torture and abuse is a person’s alone. They are responsible.

Cora eventually makes her way to the Valentine Farm which appears as a modern day utopia. *Spoiler Alert* Utopia ends in blood and carnage. I felt like the Valentine scenes were a bit preachy to me, and after the heaviness of the other locations I was just ready for the book to be over. I wouldn’t rate this book on a level of Pulitzer Prize winning material, but his writing does make you think about injustice and the cruelty of slavery. He wasn’t afraid to include the dark and dirty side of history, but he also adds in a lot of lecturing. I do not like to be told how to think. I know some people may need this as an eye opener, but I just wanted more knowledge on the topic from a fresh perspective. I don’t think I would recommend it for most readers unless they have a true interest in the topic.

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