The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

I quite often look at shortlists for literary prizes to help select which books I’d like to read soon. This has been nominated for, and won, numerous prizes since its publication last year. We all know that awards are not always given to the most deserving people, but this novel definitely deserves all the accolades it receives. The Underground Railroad is a work of semi-fantastical and historical fiction; it tells the story of Cora, a slave escaping a plantation in Georgia, who uses a series underground trains to flee to the north. Colson Whitehead has bravely written about a key part of American history, and adapted the true history to highlight the sheer inhumanity of slavery in the south. The trains on Whitehead’s underground railroad are dangerous, infrequent and head to unknown destinations, but they are used because escapees are so desperate to get away from slavery.

The reader follows Cora on her journey, and sees the various events and incidents that happen to her as she strives for freedom. Whitehead has obviously done his research very well and has fictionalised history for a modern audience, almost suggesting what may have happened if emancipation had not been enacted. He brings Cora’s story to life in an manner that is so good its impossible to not get emotional whilst reading. We also are given small non-linear chapters that explain the roles of various people in Cora’s life; her mother, a slave catcher, a emancipation sympathiser and a fellow escapee. With these short chapters we learn about the each character and the influence they have on Cora, an interesting way of developing her character.

Throughout the novel there is a grand narrative that follows more than the characters within the novel; it is essentially a narrative on America during slavery, but also seems to be a comment on the whitewashing of black American history. I don’t want to comment too much on this however, because I am a white middle class male… Whatever you read into this novel, it is excellent.


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