The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead
The Underground Railroad Cover

The Underground Railroad


Yep, I finally got around to reading one of the most celebrated books of 2016, and on most levels it didn't disappoint. Colson Whitehead's book follows Cora, a slave born on a plantation in Georgia, as she runs away and tries to find a better life, with the help of an Underground Railroad which is literally a railway underground. The narrative alternates between describing the stops on Cora's journey - from the plantation, through states with equal or worse oppression and those with ostensibly progressive programmes with sinister undertones, and eventually to somewhere where she seems, briefly, to be treated as a human being - with chapters from other character's perspectives.

As the subject matter requires, this is a relentlessly brutal book. There are no good slave owners here, and few characters who are portrayed in any sort of positive light, just endless forms of abusers and enablers among the white characters, and black characters desperately trying survive a system which wants to separate them from any definition of humanity. Cora's relationship with her absent mother (who escaped from the plantation when Cora was young, never to be caught) was a particularly poignant strand throughout the book, as she seeks to understand how her mother could have run away and left her, and if such an action can ever be forgiven.

If I have a criticism, it's that the speculative element - the literal underground railroad - feels very underutilised. It's treated as a useful conceit, getting Cora from one location to another in a way which justifies the linked but separate experiences she has in each, but she spends very little time actually on or in the railroad, and its existence is left deliberately unexplained. Towards the end, it feels like there are parallels being drawn between this mysterious project and the workers who built it, and the still-unacknowledged work of slaves on which the USA's wealth is built. But it's subtle, and I was hoping for something with more of an integrated fantasy element. That said - I can't fault the Underground Railroad for being the book it is, and it's definitely one to pick up if you're looking for an unflinching mostly-historical read about this difficult but important period in US history.