Book Review

The Underground Railroad


I felt pain, shame, and horror. This book was at once one of the hardest I’ve read and one of the hardest to put down. Set in the years before the Civil War and told in the voice of a young slave girl with an indomitable spirit, it is simple and deep, stark and rich.

I won’t retell the story; others have done that. Looking back on the whole of the novel, though, five things struck me.

First, the innocence of the main voice. Cora thinks and speaks with a directness, perhaps a childish simplicity that some have criticized but that I thought appropriate. Having been born into slavery, she accepts and describes as unembellished fact the details of what she feels and sees.

Second, her determination. It turns out that Cora’s quiet acceptance isn’t acceptance at all, but mere submission for the sake of a greater goal – escape.

Third, the fate of those who helped blacks escape. I had no idea that collaborators were as suddenly and cruelly put to death in the way described here.

Fourth, the doggedness of the slave catcher, Ridgeway. Whitehead gives him enough of a background to make him a full character, almost sympathetic at times, but not quite. I was quite happy to witness his numerous failures.

Fifth, Cora’s enduring love-hate bond with her mother, who abandoned her to make good her own escape when Cora was ten. Do things ever change? Across the historical spectrum, the racial spectrum, the economic spectrum, girls are shaped by their mothers in lifelong ways.

My only criticism of The Underground Railroad is the railroad itself, which Whitehead presents as a real one that ran underground through tunnels dug by escaping blacks. We know this never happened. Its presence in the book, made me wonder whether other descriptions of the events of that time are similarly fictitious. To some, that will detract from the power of this book.

I’m not a fan of Oprah books. As a writer, I resent her influence in the world of publishing. Naturally, this is sour grapes. If she had ever picked one of my books (Family Tree, for instance, which presents a true-to-life racial dilemma in a predominantly white world), I would be singing her praises. I have not read her comments on The Underground Railroad. Having read the book now, though, I do feel that any extra attention she may have given it is a good thing.

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