I took a class in college where we examined the impact of Oprah’s Book Club. Basically, if Oprah puts a sticker on it, there’s pretty much a guarantee it’ll become a bestseller. People read them not just because they’re interested in those particular books, but because they want to be able to talk about the books everyone else is talking about. In this case, Oprah’s love for this book got it released over a month early, so there’s been some major hype surrounding it. I actually got a copy from the publisher a few months ago, and, as soon as I saw it was released early, I immediately picked it up and started reading. I like reading and reviewing books that have gotten a lot of attention, because it’s always interesting to look at why they’ve gotten that attention. In the case of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, I think it’s pretty obvious why it stands apart from a lot of other books this year. Whitehead takes the slave narrative and puts his own creative spin on it, resulting in a book that is both impactful and entertaining.
Every slave thinks about it. In the morning and in the afternoon and in the night. Dreaming of it. Every dream a dream of escape when it didn’t look like it. When it was a dream of new shoes.
Cora comes from a long line of Georgia slaves; both her mother and grandmother worked the Randall plantation before her. When she’s abandoned by her mother – the first slave to successfully escape the Randalls – at the age of nine, the other slaves keep their distance. That is, until Caesar comes arrives from Virginia. He tells Cora of the Underground Railroad, and asks her to escape with him, a prospect Cora had never considered, despite her mother’s legacy. As she and Caesar flee Georgia and head for freedom in the North, Cora encounters a world beyond what she could have imagined.
Whitehead managed to strike the perfect balance between a traditional slave narrative and a modern novel. I really enjoyed both the historical aspect of the novel and the author’s interesting take on it. Having read several actual slave narratives in the past and studied slavery in a historical context in college (I also lived right next door to the African Meeting House in Boston, which was part of the real underground railroad, and is now a wonderful museum), I thought, as a historical fiction novel, The Underground Railroad rang true. It brilliantly demonstrated a variety of slave experiences and stories, not just Cora’s, and I really appreciated that. I loved the diversity of the characters in this book, bot
Cora thanked the Lord that her skin had never been burned in such a way. But we have all been branded even if you can’t see it, inside if not without – and the wound from Randall’s cane was the very same thing, marking her as his.
I really enjoyed Whitehead’s unique spin on history. He strays from the facts a few times – most notably, making the underground railroad an actual railroad – but it works really well! I think his take on the slave narrative makes for an interesting story that is unlike anything else you’ll read, and I thought it was brilliant. I also loved Whitehead’s writing style – it was appropriately simple, and the imagery was lovely. I thought it set the atmosphere well, and his dialogue spoke to the fact that many of the characters were illiterate, but not stupid. The writing suited the story well, and, based on my reading experience, I would definitely pick up another of Whitehead’s books!
The beginning was a bit slow (though probably necessary for readers who haven’t previously studied the conditions of slaves on southern plantations), and the ending wasn’t as satisfying as I would have hoped, but, overall, I think The Underground Railroad is entirely worthwhile. I’d recommend it as a great read for anyone, but I think this is a particularly great book for anyone looking to read more diversely or read some great American historical fiction.
Have you read The Underground Railroad? What did you think of it? And if you haven’t picked it up yet, are you planning to?
This book was provided to me by the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.