Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Read Off the TBR Pile: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

This is a novel I've been wanting to read for quite some time. February is African American History Month, and I felt this was the perfect time to read it. I finished last night, and had to take some time to digest, because it's a book that left me gobsmacked. 

First of all, Colson Whitehead is an amazing writer. Amazing. This was a novel that grabbed me and occasionally let me come up for air. I  read it in chunks, because some of it was brutal, and left me feeling a bit sick and horrified. 

Cora is a young slave working the cotton fields at the Randall plantation in Georgia. Two brothers own two parts of the plantation, and while she is under the ownership of the less brutal brother, it is still a harsh life. Her mother Martha had run away when Cora was very small, and the famous slave catcher Ridgeway had failed to bring her back to the plantation. Ridgeway just could never let that go, and that plays a big part in Cora's journey throughout the novel. Cora herself is at turns angry and bitter at her mother for leaving her, and desperately missing her mother. 

Cora's owner dies, and his brother Terrance takes ownership of the whole plantation. Terrance is quite possibly the most sadistic and horrible character in the novel. He has his eye on Cora, and she is terrified of what's to come. Caesar, a fellow slave, decides to run, and asks Cora to go with him. The two run away and so begins Cora's amazing flight to freedom. 

The underground railroad is stunning; it's an actual railroad, complete with trains and tracks. Cora travels from Georgia to South Carolina and beyond. At each stop she thinks she's found a safe place. The people who help along the way are all part of a huge network of folks who risk their lives to keep the railroad moving. Some of them pay a harsh price. 

I can't tell you more, because if you haven't read it, you should and discover Cora's journey for yourself. While some reviewers expressed disappointment in not getting to know Cora on a deeper level, I didn't find that to be true. The brutality she experiences is told in a matter of fact way which makes it that much more awful. This was every day life. I was reminded at times of witch hunts--people taking the opportunity to turn others in on suspicion in order to get even for imagined slights. I was reminded of World War 2, when people took great risks to hide Jews and help them get to safety. I was reminded of those people who were so afraid for their own safety that they willingly, and sometimes gleefully betrayed others in order to survive. Time and again, Whitehead reminds us that the machine of the South was relentless, asking for more and more human flesh to keep it churning, greedy for more cotton, more money. 

The "magical realism" of the railroad and some of Cora's experiences portray a world gone mad and out of control. Time and again, Cora meets and loses someone; she must continue on this journey alone. Ridgeway has not given up on finding Cora and bringing her back to the plantation. He's obsessed with her, and will not let Martha's daughter escape. 

Will Cora make it to freedom? Is it worth the sacrifices and loss she must suffer?   Will she ever find Martha?

This is a novel that will stick with me for a long time. I feel emotionally exhausted. Worthy of all the accolades, and definitely one of the best books I've read in a very, very long time. 

Rating: 6/6 for a Pulitzer prize winning novel that is astonishing in the brutal portrayal of slavery and a flight to freedom. A cast of unforgettable characters and excellent writing make this truly an epic read. 

Available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audio.  

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