Book Review: The Underground Railroad-Colson Whitehead


If you want to see what this nation is all about, I always say you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.

Surviving in a modern America means witnessing the turn of a blind eye to many social, political, and economic dilemmas people of color face in their communities.  Built on the back of slaves, America has become one of most powerful yet symbolically controversial nations to live in. History has weaved itself between killings, incarceration, war, and onto our T.V. screens as we look at the history of racism through tinted glasses.  Colson Whitehead’s innovative novel, The Underground Railroad takes readers through the journey of escaping slavery and exploring the underground railroad physically and metaphorically.

In the novel, it tells the story of a young women by the name of Cora. Cora resides on the Randall Plantation in Georgia where both her mother and grandmother have also spent their lives. Whitehead portrays Cora as a brave and resilient women who has endured difficult hardships while on the plantation. When Caesar, a slave from Virginia transported to the Randall plantation, approaches Cora about running away, it’s in Cora’s bones and soul to not let any boundaries hold her from experiencing true freedom.

Know your value and you know your place in the order. To escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principles of your existence: impossible.

During the journey of Cora and Caesar escaping the plantation, Whitehead takes us on the exploration of the underground railroad. He bends the factual accounts of the underground railroad and turns it into a physical railroad. Cora and Caesar travel on the railroad, meeting different characters and places along the way. The pair doesn’t get too far head in their journey as the slave catcher Ridgeway is hot on their trail. Escape is always on the cusp of being reached, but never fully attained. Cora and Caesar are the eyes and ears of what made the underground railroad be the underground railroad.  The author really focuses on what makes up the American fabric, by creating metaphorical imagery through the use of the railroad. What propelled Cora into the narrative was the movement of the train; its’ tracks built on fear, blood, and death.

Cut you open and rip them out, dripping. Because that’s what you do when you take away someone’s babies-steal their future. Torture them as much as you can when they are on this earth, then take away the hope that one day their people will have it better.

Overall, I’m impressed. Colson Whitehead did a fantastic job as a novelist bringing this story alive in a new and innovative way.  There are so many horrors women and men alike faced during the slave era, and the author touched on several issues (rape, the Tuskegee project, punishment, blackface, etc.) that occurred. Colson Whitehead is definitely an intellectualist who put thought and research into this project to create a one of kind novel. The allegoric use of the train serves well in the novel, as the readers “travel” through the breadth of America during the 19th century. History is merely a stop on the way, and the wheels are the people moving history forward unclear on the direction or destination. The Underground Railroad is without a doubt smart and a constant reminder of what America was and how its’ past is reflected now. A few qualms I had about the novel was that the characters were very disconnected in the novel the whole way through. It was told through third person but it felt as if the author held the characters at an arm and legs length and then placed them in the novel. In the middle of the novel, we lose Caesar and I’m still not sure if we ever truly find out what happened to him. I would have preferred a more personal account of Cora’s experience as it would have made the story more gripping. Whitehead wanted to show the extensiveness of his research and intellectualism through his writing which I definitely commend; however it overshadowed what could have been better developed characters. Toward the end of the novel, it seemed to drag on and became a bit cumbersome to read.  Whitehead demonstrates his writing by creating excellent passages to read, and I found myself highlighting so many of beautifully versed sentences. It fell short in many ways including characters, the overall flow, and personalization. I instead felt like I was viewing the story through an objective lens, which in this case doesn’t work. I gave this novel 4 stars on Goodreads as it is an important read, but lacked some further development.



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