The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The Underground Railroad may be the most talked about book in America right now. This is mainly due to the fact that Oprah picked it as her latest bookclub book. I think that this fact even drove it to an even early publication date than originally expected. However, I have been hearing about it in the book world for ages! Ann from Books on the Nightstand talked about it - and I think I read an excerpt somewhere as well. Meaning that in my world - this book had a lot of hype. And that is where the problem started - I tend not to read books at the height of their hype. I still have not read The Goldfinch because even when I think it has finally fell off the world's radar someone else will tell me how amazing it is. I am always worried about hype.
Overall, this is a very very good book. This is the first novel I have read by Mr. Whitehead and I am now a fan and going to pick up his backlist. That being said - I am not sure that I feel that this novel did anything new. The most inventive hook - that the Underground Railroad was actually a train underground - is largely unused. The history is left vague, and there are large parts of the novel where it is not even present. And, as one of my favorite book people Roxanne Gay pointed out in her review on Goodreads, this is what I wanted to know more about.
The character of Cora, who is the center of our story, is truly a woman to remember. Strong in the toughest of times. She stands out for her desire to persevere. Mr. Whitehead does a very nice job of making you sympathetic to her and the awful things she goes through - but I never felt sorry for her. I don't think Cora is the kind of woman that would ever want you to feel sorry for her. And I loved her for that. As a book person, I was in love with her love of reading almanacs. I found this to be a very clever twist - a woman who is taught so little about the world knows so much about it. There were times I smiled as she reviewed the random facts she knew.
Unfortunately, Cora is the only character with any depth. No one else in the novel becomes more than a vehicle for her story. Even her mother, who we learn has left her when she ran away herself - and eventually we even learn her fate - is not flushed out enough to truly understand her role in who Cora becomes. The two men she falls in love with are flat - and really only more tragic pieces to her story. I would say the most filled out character is the slave hunter that is obsessed with catching her - but even he seems rushed through. This is certainly Cora's story - but I feel that a few of the other characters in the book deserved a bit more time.
I do want to talk for a minute about the writing - it is amazing. There are a few sections that really stood out to me. At one point of the novel, Cora is hiding in a hidden attic in the middle of a town in North Carolina. She only has a small window to see the town square out of, and it gives her such perspective. She thinks
"Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had."
Personally I found this statement to be so powerful I had to stop reading for a second. I often think about how lucky I am to live the life I have. I try everyday to not take it for granted. So, when someone puts into perspective so clearly something that I have every day - well lets just say I took a deep breath.
Also, with everything that is going on in the world right now and all the horrible things that are happening - I am often reminded that the world is not as enlightened as I hope. We all live in our own little bubbles, and for some of us those bubbles are filled with water and they are drowning. When the character of Lander is talking to the people who live on Valentine's farm he says "Here's one delusion: that we can escape slavery. We can't. Its scars will never fade." I was heartbroken as I read this, because not only was it true to the novel it is sadly true for so many today.
How to end - This book is amazing and I think for so many reasons you should read it. However, it did not move my world like almost all of Toni Morrison or open my eyes like The Known World by Jones to something that I had no idea even existed. But I really loved Cora and hope that after the last page that her life finally takes a turn that will make her happy forever. I think this book will be everywhere for a long while - and it is well deserved.
Rating : 4 books