I don’t hand out 5-star ratings easily on Goodreads, but I didn’t have to think twice about my verdict for The Underground Railroad – a definite 5-star read. And clearly there are many others who agree: this book won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize and has also received Oprah Winfrey’s coveted stamp of approval.
Set in the 1800s, Colson Whitehead’s beautifully written novel tells the tale of Cora, a runaway slave who escapes a harsh existence on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Urged to escape by fellow slave Caesar, Cora follows in the footsteps of her mother Mabel, who escaped from the same Georgian plantation several years earlier. Mabel was the only slave ever to outsmart the renowned slave-catcher Ridgeway, who hunted her unsuccessfully for years. Not one to forget, Ridgeway is determined to make up for his reputed incompetence this time around.
Historically speaking, the ‘Underground Railroad’ refers to a network of safe houses and secret routes that helped thousands of black slaves to escape from the southern states up to the north, and particularly into Canada. Whitehead uses poetic licence to explore the idea of the Railroad as an actual railway, with underground stations and trains. Relying on sympathetic white ‘station masters’, rickety old carriages and an underground railway built by slaves, Cora and Caesar escape first to South Carolina, where they find work and lodgings, and try to adjust to their new surroundings.
But the relentless Ridgeway is hot on their heels, eager to claim his reward for the return of the runaways, and more importantly, to re-establish his reputation in the eyes of the plantation owner. At each stage of Cora’s journey, she relies on different people to help keep her safe, and while doing so, jeopardises their own safety – white people who harbour black runaways are shown no mercy.
It’s clear that a lot of research has gone into writing this novel, and this makes it especially difficult to stomach the horrific treatment of the black slaves, knowing these atrocities actually did happen.
For me, this book provided another insight into the history of black slavery in the US, and the origins of racial segregation and discrimination. Together with novels such as Gone with the Wind and The Help, The Underground Railroad helps to explain the racial tension that is still present in modern-day America.
In some ways, I was reminded of Exit West, in the way that refugees arrive in new locations and have to adapt quickly in order to survive. Where Exit West used the symbolism of doors to represent each departure/arrival, The Underground Railroad used the underground stations.
Do yourself a favour and read this book. There are many shocking scenes that will take your breath away, but on the other hand, it’s a beautiful story of the resilience and determination of the human spirit, and a reminder that freedom is something we should never take for granted.