Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Snowmaggedon has hit my small desert corner of the world and practicum continues to impress upon me that becoming a counselor is not for the faint of heart or mind. But nevertheless, I am behind in this blog, and in my reading, and that is unacceptable.

The Underground Railroad was my choice for the alternate history category in the BRRRHC because I did not want to read one of the 7,000 what-if-Hitler-won books. The premise of the novel is that the underground railroad is an actual series of trains that runs underground to secret slaves away from their plantations.

The novel follows three generations of slave women; Ajary who was taken from her home to America, her daughter Mabel who is one of the very few to escape the plantation she was born in, and the primary focus of the narrative,  Mabel’s daughter Cora, the child she left behind in her quest for freedom.

This is a brutal novel. It does not shy away from the barbaric dehumanization of slave men and women, the cruelty of all who put money above humanity, and the tyranny of white people both North and South. While most novels covering this era keep their lens focused on Southern slave owners and the like, Whitehead also exposes some of the practices of the “good” white people who did not own slaves but still believed that they were less than and needed to be eliminated via sterilization or acculturation.

Through the novel I found myself desperate for a happy ending which made me realize how incredibly privileged I am. I was looking for catharsis through a character whose existence offered no peace. Why, in the years forward where the impact of slavery is still salient, should I expect some comfort at the end of this novel? This novel runs you ragged emotionally but it is not without its moments of light, which makes it all the more devastating when that light is snuffed out.

I am incredibly glad I read it. I would absolutely recommend it. But I would also warn that it is graphic and upsetting.

TW: rape, violence, torture, murder, forced sterilization, animal abuse, racial slurs

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