March Book Review Club: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

undergroundrailroad

When Caesar first invites Cora to run away from the Randall plantation, she says no. She is cautious, like her grandmother, Ajarry, who learned caution through her own tragedies. The second time he asks, she says yes, because she is also independent, like her mother Mabel, who was the only slave to successfully run away from the Randalls. Caesar and Cora join the underground railroad, which is a literal underground train in this novel. Cora knows little about the country, and she finds each state to be a completely different world. Her birth state of Georgia is a land of misery and evil landowners. South Carolina wears a progressive face, as Cora learns to read and live as a free woman there, but it has secrets. North Carolina is a nightmare police state, where runaway slaves are routinely hanged in the hanging tree in the town square along with those who aid them, and children turn in their parents to the gallows and neighbors turn on neighbors. Tennessee is a cursed land, ravaged by wildfires and yellow fever. Indiana is a haven, where Cora can farm the land and read books.

While Cora is on the run throughout the country, the infamous slave catcher, Ridgeway is chasing her. Ridgeway never got over his inability to capture Mabel, Cora’s mother, so he pursues Cora with all of his energy, even after Cora’s former owner dies, eliminating the possibility of a cash award. Ridgeway has a diabolical sense of irony. He purchased exactly one slave in his life, Homer, who he immediately freed and taught to read and capture runaway slaves. He is also a firm believer in Manifest Destiny. He understands the Trail of Tears and slavery to be injustices, but he simply doesn’t care, as both are in line with his vision for the country.

I did enjoy The Underground Railroad, and I do recommend it. It was creative and well-written. It is primarily written from Cora’s point of view in a close third person narration, but short chapters scattered throughout the novel portray the POV of other characters, so we also get stories of Ridgeway, of Caesar, of corrupt doctors, and of wannabe missionaries. The characters are all well-developed. Some are kind; others are monstrous; and all of them are part of a world where there are no good choices, only difficult and dangerous ones.  While this is a good read, it is a difficult one, as there is no justice for many of the characters.

Although it may be a dark book about a terrible time in our nation’s history, The Underground Railroad is a good reminder that Americans are creative and resourceful in the face of injustice. We may not have runaway slaves being rounded up in our current age, but a hunt for undocumented immigrants is on, as civil rights and women’s rights both move backwards and religious freedoms are under attack, making both creativity and sacrifice as necessary as they were in the nineteenth century.

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@Barrie Summy

 

FCC Notice: I bought my own copy.