I didn’t think I would like this book at first. Books with a lot of hype, a lot of readership, and a few awards scare me. What if I read it and I don’t like it? What if it’s all my writing pet peeves? I’ve disliked a lot of Pulitzer Prize winning novels over the years and tend to stay clear of them. But, my online book club picked The Underground Railroad for our monthly book and so I read it. I absolutely loved it.
The back of the book describes this story as a Gulliver’s Travels type, but instead of some dude traipsing through a fantasy it’s a slave woman trying to find herself freedom during the height of slavery in America.
Cora, our main character, is the focus of this story. It starts with her decision to run away with her friend, Caesar. You get a small glimpse of the life she lived before that question arose. She was a slave on a massive cotton plantation exposed to whippings, sexual assault, abandonment, and fear. There wasn’t anything remarkable about her. She was actually considered an outcast for having a mother who successfully ran away and abandoned her there. While it was hell, she thought life on the plantation was good. That is, until her master died and someone else took up the helm. This was when she decided to leave.
Ceasar and Cora escape to the Underground Railroad, which in this book is an actual train going underground. I seriously was imagining it as a metaphor and not an actual train, but when they got into the small boxcar it only seemed logical to have an underground train. I was so happy for Cora to get out of the Randall plantation and seek out her freedom, but this book made me really realize that the journey to freedom was never easy.
At each stop Cora made, she found herself in some deeper level of Hell. Each place she visited while did take her further and further from her plantation was just wrought with some terrible thing for Black people. Cora would feel safe for a small amount of time until something disrupts her peace and sends her running again.
On top of every stop she made, there was a slave-catcher hunting her down. Not only was she landing in these cities that eventually crumble her hopes of freedom, but she also has to run from a man trying to take her back to Georgia. I loved her ability to survive through all of this and still hope to gain her freedom, but I can’t imagine the emotional, physical, and mental burden she takes on as she loses friends on her trip.
As for Colson Whitehead’s writing style, I actually loved it. I was afraid it would be overwrought or dry, but he wrote with brilliance including actual advertisements for runaway slaves. Those little snippets really pulled the story together and made it much more real to me. This was such a great book and I loved it.