Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Author: Colson Whitehead
Publisher: Random House
Publication Year: 2016
Pages: 417
Genre: Fiction/Historical Fiction
My Ratiing: 5/5
Goodreads challenge book #1 

Synopsis (from back cover)

 Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell 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—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
     In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.     


I first heard about this book on the All the Books Book Riot Podcast and then soon everyone was talking about it. It won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2016 and was named as an Oprah Book Club pick, it even come out in advance of it's release date to much buzz and speculation. I kept hearing about how good it was, and how it was going to propel Whitehead into future Nobel Laureate candidacy.

One things kept me from rushing out and buying it right away was that every list proclaimed THE book of 2016 and I have a big fear of over hype. This happens a lot when the novelty and pre-release publicity whip up a storm of attention around a new release title and everyone seams to be talking about the book, reading it and then gushing about it. Personally, I've found that this is a set-up for disappointment. I've found that reading a book in the midst of it's hype period often leads to disappointment. The bar is set so high ('its the BEST book ever!!") that the book inevitably falls short and I end up liking the book less than I would have done so if I hadn't been set up to expect a perfect book. In the case if I really want to read a buzz book, I'll wait for the paperback release when the hype has died down and I don't have to pay $35 for a hard back new release.

Then, the book was gifted to me and I had no excuse. I finished it yesterday and although I feel like it will take me a while to fully digest the book, here are my thoughts: 

The book is excellent both in content and crafting. The main narrative follows Cora's story from the atrocities she experiences  on the Georgia plantation she was born in and eventually escapes to each part of her journey north hopping from state to state, each offering a different face of the evil faced by black slaves and free men in pre-civil war America. Each time Cora finds a town in which to settle and make her life a new obstacle arises pushing the narrative forward in alternative waves of hope and despair. 

The story itself is not strictly chronological, often teasing at future events and then going back to explain gaps in the narrative. The story explores perspectives apart from Cora's, including the perspective of the slave who convinces Cora to run away, a white woman who assist Cora on her journey and the slave catcher on an obsessive hunt to capture her. The writing abounds in short sentence fragments that pack a punch mixed with longer, more abstract musings where they author's voice seems to overtake the protagonists',

The book takes liberty with historical facts and timelines to create a captivating story that directly addresses today's racial, social and political issues. Overall it was a beautiful, heart wrenching book that captivated me and that I highly encourage everyone to pick up. It was not an enjoyable book to read, like a thriller or a romance is enjoyable, and many times I had to put down the book and take a break even though I was dying of curiosity to find out  what happened to Cora next. Ultimately, I think this is one of those rare books that calls for a re-read. Although the language was simple, the story haunted me days after I had turned the last page. I am still digesting it and have a feeling that it will offer something new each time I pick it up

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