The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Best for: People who like good, intense writing and want a bit more insight into slavery in the U.S.
In a nutshell: Cora escapes the plantation she is enslaved on and faces more challenges and danger.
Line that sticks with me: “Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.”
Why I chose it: It’s been on my shelf for a few months; my visiting brother-in-law suggested it was a good book to bring on our family vacation last week.
Colson Whitehead is a talented writer. He tells a compelling story about a brutal time in U.S. history, weaving in components that aren’t necessarily accurate from a time perspective but that still happened. He doesn’t pull any punches with the horrors of life as a slave and punishment of slaves, but this book doesn’t feel like torture porn. It is graphic but not voyeuristic.
The story itself is fascinating. Mr. Whitehead follows Cora but also tells some of the story of her grandmother and mother, as well as of the people she encounters along the way. We never sympathize with slave owners, but Mr. Whitehead also allows them to be more than just caricatures with twirling mustaches. But what’s better, he allows for the people helping out on the underground railroad (which, in this telling, is an actual railway that is buried underground) to be less than saintly. I also appreciate that the individuals in this book are fully developed and provided with things to do that aren’t just in service of the main character.
Cora, however, is a remarkable woman. She is conflicted. She is brave, but not reckless. She thinks things through. She is skeptical (rightfully) of others. She doesn’t start out totally naive, but Mr. Whitehead draws her out so that she matures in her understanding of the motivations of others. She wants to survive, and she wants to believe that perhaps better things can happen for her.
I’m happy that this book moved up to the top of my to be read list; if you have it on yours but haven’t picked it up yet, I promise you won’t be disappointed if you start it today.