Saturday, June 17, 2017

Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead's moving, Pulitzer Prize winning, novel is filled with magic and darkness, real, true American evil that can be ignored. The story of Cora and her escape travels through the harsh American South before the Civil War through a fictional railroad actually built underground and operated by abolitionists. Her treatment in captivity in Georgia under the control of the ruthless Randall brothers turns worse as the more evil Randall takes over when his brother dies. When a young man Caesar approaches Cora with a plan to escape, she brushes him off, especially because she suspects he only wants her to tag along because he believes she'll be a good luck charm because of her mother. Ever since a child, she had to fight for even a small plot of land but she learns this sense of ownership was only an illusion.

During a celebration, Cora intervenes in the punishment of a young boy and this influences her decision to leave. She packs up and flees with Caesar only to find Lovey, Cora's friend has followed them. They allow Lovey to tag along but a group of slave catchers assaults them. They kidnap Lovey and Cora has to kill a young white man to escape. Caesar and Cora find the station and leave to South Carolina. Whitehead intersperses each journey of the trip with tales of others caught up in the cruel act of slavery that illuminate the world in which Cora must live. 

In South Carolina, Cora finds an easier life working as a maid named Bessie and then as a prop for a slave exhibit in a museum. Caesar and Cora think about staying until Cora learns about an experiment to sterilize black women and infect them with syphilis. The doctor's life and his evil experiments are given a chapter. Cora learns that the slave hunter Ridgeway is after them and she hides in the station. Caesar does not arrive and the house above the station is burnt down. Cora catches the last train out and makes it to North Carolina.

An abolitionist's son and reluctant wife take Cora in and she is forced to live in a cramped attic space with only a hole to look out of onto a park. Scenes of unimaginable cruelty play out through the hole as a weekly lynching ceremony is performed and dogs are treated better than black humans. Ridgeway arrives and exposes Cora's hiding spot. She is taken away as her hosts are hanged. The slave catcher and his group travel through the burnt out towns of Tennessee until a group of rebel slaves accost Ridgeway and takes Cora away. She spends her time in Indiana on a farm with groups of freed slaves who plan to start new lives until the nearby whites attack.

Cora is captured once again by Ridgeway but manages to kill him down in the tunnel of the railroad. She travels in the darkness until she comes out in the North and finds freedom. It is revealed near the end that Mabel tried to come back for her but was bitten by a snake. The story is truly tragic and shows the depravity of white Americans over a century ago. Colson Whitehead is a powerful author who has written a story well-deserving of all the accolades.

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