Common Review: A good book that deserves to be on your TBR but grab it from the library as I do not believe this is very re-readable. Writing improves as the character gains understanding, and the different state’s ideas on slavery is a unique way to discuss many different avenues of prejudice, but in the end, would have worked better as a first person narrative.
The Underground Railroad is a slavery tale following the life of Cora as she escapes her terrible life on a Georgia plantation. The beginning of this book talks about Cora’s mother and grandmother’s life coming to America and then working on the plantation. The first 50-60 pages of this book are just really difficult to read. Many awful things happen to these 3 women and those around them. The writing is very small sentences with little elaboration. This makes the reading very choppy and difficult to fall into. Once Cora leaves, along with her friend Caesar, the story really starts going and gets interesting.
The underground railroad is an actual railroad running under the ground to help free slaves and it is used really well as a way to make the novel more engaging and to get our character to places faster than usual. The first stop is South Carolina and things seem a lot better in South Carolina. Black people are paid for their jobs and live in dormitory-like housing, but Cora soon learns that even though life is better, she is still treated as sub-human by white people. Her next stop is North Carolina where black people are pretty much killed on sight. She has to spend many months in an attic hiding and this is the best characterization section for Cora as we get more into her inner thoughts. She then visits a few more states on her way to the North that each has their own unique way of seeing slaves.
All along this trek, there is a bounty hunter hunting Cora. Cora killed a young teen in self-defense during the night she fled the plantation and the bounty hunter is after her. She knows if he catches her, her ex-owner will kill her in a torturous manner. This gives the story its agency and its antagonist, as Cora makes her way North, he is forever on her trail.
The brilliance of this novel is in the way each state views Cora. Whitehead borrows atrocities committed to black people throughout American history and showcases them in each of the states she visits. A lot of the things are grounded in fact but may have happened many years later in our actual history. This allows the reader to better understand, in our own timeline, that the things that happened to Black Americans, even after they were given freedom, were just as bad as if they were still bound. I also loved how Whitehead put so many instances of how black and white people are similar in scientific ways that the only way whites could believe what they were doing was alright was to bury their minds in prejudice.
I just really wanted to connect to this book on a more emotional level instead of a gut-wrenching level. I felt that Whitehead kept the reader at a distance and that Cora’s characterization could have been a lot better. I feel like these type of tellings almost always work better as a first person narrative. Getting inside Cora even more and knowing her unfiltered feelings is what I really wanted. Because of the hardships that Cora went through, she was a bit closed off from the world, and even though this makes sense, it doesn’t make for as good of a story. I did not think that making the book improve with the writing as the book went on helped the book at all. I could be way off on this, and this intention wasn’t even present in the book, but the beginning was just so difficult to get involved with. At times it read like a list of things that happened and I just wasn’t feeling that. I also wanted more characterization in the secondary characters.
I think that your connection with the book will come from if you think Whitehead’s writing is great or not. I personally thought his writing was average and the prose wasn’t anything special. Others have praised the writing in this book, so you’ll have to see for yourself if you find it special. There are other books on slavery, like Kindred, that I think are better written, and more re-readable.
Took me 7hrs and 8m to finish. 43pages per hour