Review: Underground Railroad

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via Goodreads

Today, I’m highlighting the book that was just voted Goodreads’ Best Historical Fiction book for 2016: Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.  If you haven’t gathered from the title, a short summary should do:

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood – where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted. (Via)

I’m giving Underground Railroad four out of five stars.

First, let’s get this out of the way: it’s impossible not to have high expectations when a book is everywhere, winning awards, and splashing itself all over Oprah’s Book Club.  I really did my best not to let all of that influence how I feel about this book.

As one might expect, this is a very heavy piece of prose, thanks mostly to the content, but also to Whitehead’s writing style.  I have to say, above all else, that Colson Whitehead’s writing is absolutely superb. From a craft and style perspective, this book is five stars on all accounts.  Whitehead manages to present the raw, terrifying reality of slavery and escape in a way that is relatable to any reader.  With regard to the incredible violence that slaves in the United States experienced, Whitehead manages to lay it out for his reader in unapologetically plain terms – then moves on. Perhaps it’s simply because these horrors were, unfortunately, common. Perhaps it’s because the point of the book is not the horrors that so many people faced, but rather the courageous escapes that many of them attempted. My guess is that his intention was a combination of both.

[Spoilers ahead]

The only reason that, for me, this isn’t a five star book, is because there are what I see as some historical inaccuracies in the actual Underground Railroad as it is portrayed in the book.  Colson Whitehead has gone on record acknowledging that historically, there is no evidence of a physical railroad that carried slaves to freedom.  I understand his reasoning for incorporating a physical railroad: that when we are young, we think of it as an actual railroad system (absolutely true for me).  My issue is that this, and some other ideas in the book, unintentionally promote myths about the Underground Railroad that aren’t true.

For me as a reader and someone who assists with Underground Railroad tours in my small town, I have such a difficult time not giving this book five stars because it is so clearly telling the narrative of slaves and runaway slaves in America.  It’s beautifully written, magnificently researched, and sends its message straight through to your heart.  But for me, a few liberties – what makes this historical fiction – knock it down just a little bit.  My guess is that for many readers, this will be the first (and possibly last) book that they read about slavery…or at least it’s the first book they’ve read about the subject since The Invention of Wings. And I want more for those readers. I want a book that is powerful and poignant and that gives an accurate account of what it looked like to get a slave from the deep South in Georgia up to the Mason-Dixon Line where the Underground Railroad truly began.

So, would I recommend this book? Hell yes, I would recommend this.  This book should be offered in high school classrooms across the country, because it highlights a very ugly, nasty part of our history.  But readers need to educate themselves enough to separate fact from creative liberty, so that they can consider what kind of metaphor Colson Whitehad is introducing with a very literal Underground Railroad.

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