Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all slaves, but Cora is an outcast even among her fellow Africans, and she is coming into womanhood; even greater pain awaits. Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her of the Underground Railroad and they plot their escape. Like Gulliver, Cora encounters different worlds on each leg of her journey.
Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors of black life in pre-Civil War America. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.
I wanted to love this book. I was expecting to dive deep, fall in love with the writing and the story, and pop up my head 24 or 48 hours later ready to sing its praises like an odd literary siren. Instead I’m here almost two weeks later, throat sore from swallowing water, wondering where things went wrong.
The narrative itself is epic. We follow Cora as she navigates her way North, using a literal underground railroad to run towards freedom. The device is great. I love all the research that Whitehead did – he shows that there wasn’t a simple progression of free states and slave states, but entirely different sets of rules dependent on location that had to be negotiated. We even see these rules change over time in particular places. When I studied history in school slavery was reduced to, “man, that was awful and wrong, good thing we stopped doing it”. The Underground Railroad filled in gaps, showing just how senseless and violent and unforgiving the system was – all the nasty details that were missing from my textbooks.
I love learning, so in that sense I’m glad I read it. I’m a more well-rounded human now. That’s good.
But as for the craft of the novel I have some issues. First, I was never drawn into the story. I would put the book down after a chapter and leave it for a day or two, and might have forgotten about it if not for a looming library due date. Some people have suggested making at least Cora’s point of view first person to get closer to the story, which makes sense, but I’m not sure it would have worked considering Whitehead’s more clinical style.
He’s a good writer and there are passages that sing, but there are also sections that are choppy and confusing. This is the kind of book that would be great to study in a literature course, to pick and pull apart and debate. Why did the chapters jump to minor story lines, and did it serve the narrative? What makes this particular sentence special, and how did the word choice foreshadow later events? There’s more here, but I’d have to sit down and ferret it out.
And that’s the thing – I analyze (medical) texts for work. The last thing I want to do is slog through a novel only to find that to get enjoyment out of it I would have to go back and analyze it, too. Don’t get me wrong, I love novels with depth. I like the idea of returning to a book in a year or three to peel back more layers of the onion. But it has to be an enjoyable, interesting read in the first place. Signs Preceding the End of the World fell into this category for me – gripping and thought provoking on first read, with the promise of giving up more secrets when I meet it again. Sadly The Underground Railroad wasn’t a fulfilling read the first time through.
Don’t let my dithering stop you from reading this book. It’s important, and a lot of people disagree with me so who knows, you may end up loving it. No matter what you’ll be smarter and more well-rounded on the other side, and that’s never a bad thing.