by Colson Whitehead
Published August 2nd 2016 by Doubleday Books
“Slavery is a sin when whites were put to the yoke, but not the African. All men are created equal, unless we decide you are not a man.”
This is one of the books from 2016 that was highly recommended. I mean, it appeared in almost every article listing recommendations by the end of last year. Oprah hyped it and then Obama added to the hype. My boyfriend even sent me a link to get it on amazon and that was the final push. So it has been on my kindle since January and I got to start on it in March.
The Underground Railroad centers around Cora, a slave living on the Randall estate in Georgia. Caesar, a fellow slave, comes to her and suggests that they should both runaway the same way her mother did. She refuses at first but eventually agrees to go with him when she captures the attention of her owner. What Caesar was suggesting was dangerous but it took one night to convince her to leave. An incident with her masters was all it took to change her mind.
“She wasn’t surprised when his character revealed itself—if you waited long enough, it always did. Like the dawn.”
Colson Whitehead goes ahead and creates his own form of the Underground Railroad, a literal underground railroad. Historically, the term was used to refer to the network of secret routes and safe houses in the United States used by black slaves to escape into free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies sympathetic to the cause. What Whitehead did was invent an actual railroad that was used by the slaves escaping their masters.
“Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.”
When I picked up the book, that’s what I was expecting to read about, the real underground railroad. But I got something else and it took me a while to get into it. I put it down so many times before some fellow bookstagrammers convinced me to keep on going. Don’t get me wrong, the horrors faced by slaves remained the same but that one alteration threw me off a bit. If I had read the blurb, I would have known what to expect but I was going in blind because Oprah and Obama said it was a must read. Come on, Oprah AND Obama.
“The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others.”
While the re-imagined historic event caught me off guard, it was not horrible to read about. Whitehead took his liberty as an writer and spun a good tale that didn’t leave me feeling robbed for not getting the historical facts. The actual train came complete with a conductor and it operated underground. Some of the people aiding in the journey we get to hear their stories and others are given a mere mention.
What I struggled with throughout the book was Whitehead’s writing. There was a choppiness to it that I found myself drifting off or having to go back because I missed something while reading. It didn’t fully get my attention at all. I also felt like Cora’s parts could have been better if they were written in first person. That’s just a thought. I never really connected with her because there was some level of underdevelopment to her character. Some minor characters were given a spotlight but I cannot for the life of me remember most of them. I don’t know why but I just found it hard to connect with a lot of the characters in this book. I mean, with Homegoing I wanted to find out more about many of the characters and Gyasi had MANY characters in that book.
All in all, the story was amazing and I truly enjoyed it by the time I was getting to the end. He managed to tell a tale while also showing the audience what justifications the people in the South gave for doing what they felt was right to them. He came armed with biblical references that led to the Manifest Destiny and all the other ridiculous rationalizations that made slavery possible.
“If niggers were supposed to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his. If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now.
Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor–if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.”
So why did I give it a low rating? There were so many parts that made me feel like skipping a few pages that I had to put it down so many times. And the fact that I had to keep on going back because I simply forgot something from a previous chapter goes to show that his writing style just did not pull me in completely. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi or The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. But I still recommend this book because the story was simply amazing! I’m not even hyping it because it was hyped, I loved the story but didn’t fancy the writing style. Oh, and he won the Pulitzer Award for it!