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The Underground Railroad [Book Review]

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead tells the story of Cora, a young slave woman who makes plans to escape with a fellow slave, Caesar.

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The real Underground Railroad was a series of houses, shops, and other establishments that helped slaves along their journey to freedom. But, in Colson Whitehead’s book, the Underground Railroad is reimagined as a real railroad. It has trains, handcarts, and actual train stations but each station is still tied to a house or some other above ground facade. The railroad is used as a plot device to quickly move the characters from one location to another without having to delve deeply into the details of their movements.

The main character Cora is recruited by another slave, Caesar, to join him as he tries to escape to the North. Cora was born and raised on the Georgia plantation while Caesar is relatively new to the plantation. Caesar was motivated to ask Cora to join him on his journey because he’d been watching her for a while and noticed that she has a well of internal strength and willpower.

There is a driving force within Cora that pushes her to do the right thing, take a stand, and take chances. This quality is related in two instances.

The most recent was when Cora stepped up to defend another slave who was going to be beaten. Her actions weren’t really frowned upon but it was an action that nobody else was willing to take. The other slaves were equally uneasy and terrified but even in the face of danger, Cora stepped forward. She did the right thing by trying to defend a child.

There was also an earlier incident concerning Cora’s “property”. Within the slave quarters a small plot of land had been passed down from Cora’s grandmother to her mother and then to her. Cora took pride in the piece of land and spent time nurturing and tending to it. The garden plot was the only thing that Cora felt she owned and she used the land to grow vegetables for herself as her ancestors had.

It was small and insignificant to most others but held a lot of meaning for Cora. When someone else stepped in and attempted to bully Cora off the land, she stood up for herself. It’s worth noting that this man was far larger than Cora and the other slaves gave him space. This occurred around the time that Cora was ostracized from the rest of the slave community. Yet, Cora refused to back down once she made up her mind.

These events led Caesar to believe that Cora was someone he should have accompany him on his journey. Most likely because that driving force would come in handy in the course of pursuing his dangerous goal.

Cora was also known on the plantation because she came from a line of women who were…different. Her grandmother, Ajarry, came over to America on a slave ship at a very young age. Her mother, Mabel, was the first person in their line to be born into slavery in America. Several years before the start of the book, Mabel ran away from the plantation. She was the only runaway slave to have not been caught. These two women marked Cora with a halo of sorts, that she too would be different.

The Underground Railroad is interesting because it offers a peek into the mini society of slave quarters. There is a hierarchy that determines which slaves live in which cabins and romantic pairings. The book also touches on the emotional plight of slave men and women.

There is an idea that slave men seem outwardly normal while mingling with the other inhabitants of the plantation. But, Caesar’s perspective showed something different. The men showed a veneer of masculinity by day. Yet, even the manliest slave men cried when they were alone at night. Weighed down by the stress and loneliness of slavery, many of these men yearned to have someone or some permanent connection in their lives.

The Underground Railroad also discusses the vulnerability of slave women. This has been explored in other books but here the focus is on how that influences interactions between the slaves and their living arrangements. It went beyond the racism that White people used to oppress slave women and included the sexism that also allowed slave men to assault slave women.

This part of the book was quite dark and sad but was also a source of some warm moments. Shared vulnerability and misfortunes allowed the ostracized slave women to comfort and find comfort in each other. It was ironic that the women who lived in the outcast cabin had a ready supply of people to turn to for emotional support and comfort.

Recommendation

I decided to read The Underground Railroad after seemingly seeing it everywhere. It was one of Oprah’s book club picks, received many positive reviews, was featured on several reading lists, and also won a Pulitzer Prize. I thought the book was pretty good but not as amazing as I expected it to be. As with a lot of things that are very hyped, my expectations were built up very high. By all means, The Underground Railroad is a solid book but I still don’t get why it was being pushed as an amazing novel. I enjoyed the book but it wasn’t life changing.

I’d recommend The Underground Railroad if you’re a fan of historical ficion or thrillers. The action and pace of the story really pick up after Cora and Caesar leave the plantation. Whitehead allows the tension to ebb and flow but the possibility of being caught is always present. I questioned the characters’ decisions to make stops along the way but it all contributed to the making the book engrossing.

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