The Underground Railroad: A Novel
Author: Colson Whitehead
Publisher: Doubleday 2016
Genre: Historical Fiction
Hardcover Edition: 306 pages
Source: Personal copy
Critics praise this dynamic novel. Whitehead’s story takes readers places they have likely not been before. Though you may have found it improbable that an actual train whose passageway tunneled through the earth existed as part of the historic Underground Railroad, this writer’s vivid imagination and talent make the reader believe. The reader easily moves from skepticism at an outlandish idea to a fully realized journey, much of it beneath the earth. Think about the people who dug those tunnels, and laid those rails.
The story of Cora during the years before the Civil War builds on the power of previous slave narratives. It is a story that does not gloss over the human cost of slavery nor the brutality of that existence. This brutality is brought home to readers in these two simple sentences. “It was the softest bed she had ever lain in. But then, it was the only bed she had ever lain in.” Whitehead doesn’t tell us about life in slavery, he shows us in the voice of a born storyteller. And some of the things we read are beyond horrifying.
Her journey is long and Cora meets many other characters along the way. At times the novel’s pace may seem as jerky as the trip itself. The reemergence of some characters takes one by surprise and can seem difficult to follow. The where and when blur as must have been the case for those on the journey away from slavery toward freedom.
There were chapters when Cora and her resilience inspired me to stick with her tale, read more carefully, concentrate more fully. I’m glad I did. It is a read that brings thoughtfulness and some measure of satisfaction for a history buff striving to understand the experiences of enslaved people. When beginning to understand the horror, one is better able to understand events of the present. America’s past and present are intertwined. Poison lingers in the soil of our land. Compassion is one path toward healing.