“All men are created equal, unless we decide you are not a man.”
Reading and reviewing The Underground Railroad has been a long time coming. I first bought the book when I was a student at Queen Mary in London, circa late 2017, but it wasn’t until late 2019 that I finally got around to reading it in full. It’s curious that it took me so long. A book-cover recommendation from Barack Obama is hard to pass up, the cherry on top of the pile of glowing reviews from individuals and publications I admire and tend to agree with a lot of the time. The impending Amazon Prime adaptation, all eleven episodes being directed by Moonlight‘s Barry Jenkins (a film I adore) should have made it imperative reading. The answer to why it’s taken me so long can be found in my laziness, but I am very pleased to cap off 2019 having read this wonderful book.
Colson Whitehead’s novel follows a young girl, Cora, as she embarks on an escape from her plantation in the Antebellum South. Stories of slavery and the quest for freedom exist in abundance, but what first separates Whitehead’s work from the rest is its central transportational concept of the underground railroad – taking what was only ever metaphor and making it literal. More important is the crackle and vividness of the writing. The story feels epic, like a rich painting, and it blisters under the heat of the South and of slavery, the severity of evil at times shocking and at other points disturbingly commonplace. The description of punishment inflicted upon a slave towards the beginning of the book is writ into my mind forever.
Befitting of its televisual future, The Underground Railroad feels episodic. A physical journey, traversing new locations, a sequence of calm respites punctuated by strikes of darkness and action. Though this was fun to read, it ruins the open-ended conclusion a little, because it doesn’t feel like a conclusion at all, but rather the next step in the story of Cora. As such, I felt somewhat unsatisfied, like there was more story to be told, despite the resolution of the central conflict.
Nonetheless, Cora is a compelling and brutally root-able protagonist, and I found myself drowning in Whitehead’s words, often looking down to the page number and finding I had read considerably more than I’d thought. It’s an eminently readable and rich novel, quibbles with its conclusion aside. Indeed, telling the story through POV chapters only heightens this richness; though this is broadly Cora’s tale, Whitehead intersperses other character perspectives that liven the tales and, in one particular instance, flip the reader’s understanding of a small and overlook-able interaction entirely. I’m glad I got around to reading it.
“The whites were right to be afraid. One day the system would collapse in blood.”