It feels wrong to say I enjoyed reading The Underground Railroad, although I did, because it’s subject matter is so harrowing, yet so important. The experience of Cora, a plantation slave who tries to escape to the North, in civil war era USA, is heart breaking and captivating. The description of her time on the plantation was very difficult to read. It’s not that I was ignorant to what slavery must have been like, it’s just never been presented to me in such a visceral, clear way. The text feels so immersive to Cora’s daily life. It’s stark and awful. And you can not fail to make links with modern day America with this in their recent history.
When the work was done, and the day’s punishments, the night waited as an arena for their true loneliness and despair.
Colson Whitehead’s work is not an attempt to make a strictly factual account of slavery in America, but the experiences of the characters are firmly rooted in fact. The Underground Railroad is a physical underground railroad in this story, but in reality it refers to the network of moving escaped slaves around to get them out of the south and into the north, where slavery was illegal (sort of…).
After Cora escapes she makes several stops in different states, each state has a very different set up with regard to the treatment of slaves, or freed slaves. This set up of the different systems in each state is not historically accurate – but each thing described is something that happened – just not in the neat state by state way it appears in The Underground Railroad. For example, in one state there is secret medical testing on the black population. This reflects the experience of people much later on – but is still a thing that happened and is still yet another example of how freed people were not really free after all.
The Underground Railroad opens with Cora’s Grandmother Ajarry’s story. She is captured in Africa, and brought to America. I was glad that the slave ship had come from Liverpool because I think it’s too easy for British people to frame slavery as an American thing that we were nothing to do with.
Cora’s experience after leaving the plantation is of a life full of danger and uncertainty (as was her daily life on the plantation). I’m deliberately not going into the specifics of the situations she finds herself in, because I don’t want to reveal more of the plot than is necessary to discuss the main themes. She experiences freedom where she feels more restricted and confined that she ever did on the plantation. She questions what it means to be free (spoiler alert: she will never be free because of the society all around her). She feel responsible for tragedy that befalls most people who try to help her. She is frequently so close to danger and The Underground Railroad is a really gripping read in addition to being a great emotionally moving novel.
The Underground Railroad won this years Pulitzer Prize for literature. It was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but hasn’t made the shortlist. All I can say is the ones that did must be spectacular!
I loved reading The Underground Railroad and would highly recommend it. It’s an emotionally difficult read, but the prose is not complicated. It’s going to be one of those novels that stays with me for a long time. This has to be the thing i remember about it the most though:
The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.