‘The Underground Railroad’

Book Review by Michelle Goetzl

Imagine that the Civil War has yet to happen and that you are a slave on a large plantation. In Colson Whitehead’s bestseller, “The Underground Railroad,” that is exactly where he places you.

This epic novel follows Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. She is an outcast even among the other slaves, so an already challenging life is that much harder. When life on the plantation threatens to get even worse for her, she agrees to try to escape with a fellow slave.

Here is where the story takes off, and Whitehead begins to challenge our perceptions of history. Whitehead proposes a storyline that considers the metaphorical underground railroad as an actual, physical transit. What if that network of safe-houses was instead a railroad manned by conductors and engineers? While posing lots ofchallenges that make it a struggle for some readers to enjoy the book, it is on this path that Cora escapes Georgia.

However, as we know, slave holders were less than willing to just let their slaves go. A renowned slave catcher, Arnold Ridgeway, is sent after Cora. Ridgeway is determined to bring Cora in for the money and as a personal vendetta against Cora’s mother, a runaway whom he was unable to catch.

Whitehead’s novel travels across the South as Cora attempts to maintain her freedom. The novel itself is built on episodes that take place in different locations and by also giving background on other characters. Throughout her journey, readers get a glimpse of what life was like for slaves, free blacks and abolitionists.

Whitehead also poses a lot of “what if ” realities that didn’t necessarily exist but could have.

Whitehead doesn’t pull any punches, forcing the reader to think about the history that we think we know. Cora encounters different worlds at each stage in her journey that helps shape her as a person. In South Carolina, Cora works as a live model in a “living history” exhibit at a museum.

She also realizes that an apparently well-meaning medical clinic she is going to is actually an experiment in eugenics.

In North Carolina, she finds that all blacks have been run out of the state or strung up to die on the “Freedom Trail.”

“The Underground Railroad” is an adventurous quest to escape the horrors of bondage. At times painful, this wondrous book is also incredibly moving and eye-opening.

 

 

Goetzl writes an online blog—“Books My Kids Read.” She loves books and sharing that love of reading with children. She can be reached at booksmykidsread@gmail.com.