The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

‘And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes- believes with all its heart- that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.’


Surely everything that could be said about American slavery has been said? It is an incredibly popular subject among American writers, especially African American writers, such as Toni Morrison and Valerie Martin. We have seen the horrors of incarceration on the big screen depicted by Hollywood directors eager to shock and appal us.


Have we become immune to slavery’s atrocities? In an age with global news coverage and social media, can we truly be shocked anymore? We are inundated by images of Syrian refugees, victims of acid attacks, and every kind of conflict on an unpresidented scale. It can often feel removed and distant.


Literature has the power to truly understand the horrific reality of an institution such as slavery. Despite reading a number of contemporaneous slave narratives and fictional accounts of slavery in the United States, they never fail to shock me.


I didn’t have great expectations for The Underground Railroad. I saw it on the Amazon Kindle Store for £1, so decided to give it a whirl. I was looking for something that would interest me but not hurt my brain as A Little Life had done.


What Is It The Underground Railroad?


Published in 2016 by Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad received critical acclaim. It has won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The book follows Cora, a planation slave from Georgia, and her escape. She uses the Underground Railroad to help her travel away from the slave-owning states. In this book, the Underground Railroad is a physical subway, whereas in reality, it was a figurative term.


The Story


The story is a whirlwind of adventure. Even without the theme of slavery, is a compelling read. The escape attempt of Cora takes her across America. This allows us to see the various gradients of slavery at the time. The states that purport to offer freedom are still entrenched in racism, offering little solace for fugitives.


Witnessing Cora run from one hopeless situation to another truly dire one is relentless in a way I have rarely read in books discussing slavery.


The American South


I recently read and discussed To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (Review Here). I enjoyed its depictions of the American South, but felt it was a little sugar-coated. This book goes where Harper Lee did not. Perhaps this was a social issue. Lee was writing during a time when the Ku Klux Klan were still operating. Whitehead is writing in the modern day, allowing him significantly more scope to deal with controversial scenes.


For anyone who has read a slave narrative, it is easy to draw comparisons. Slave narratives are accounts of slavery written by those who either escaped or bought their freedom. They were used by the Abolitionist cause to draw attention to the inhumanity of slavery and strengthen the support for its demise. As these were appealing to influential white people, they often downplayed the brutality and what it takes to be free. Many slaves presented themselves as docile and beyond repute. They didn’t want to offend and risk losing supporters. Whitehead has no such qualms. In fact, he repeatedly shows us horrific images that shock and offend us, reinforcing how monstrous slavery is.




The Underground Railroad is a character-driven story. While the story is essentially an adventure story, it is only rendered so compelling due to the main protagonist, Cora. Born and raised on the Randall Plantation in Georgia, she is abandoned by her mother and subsequently becomes both resourceful and rather emotionally removed. She is a natural survivor with a tenacity, which makes you root for her. Living most of her life on the plantation, she talks about the atrocities she has witness with detachment, which is unnerving at times. When she leaves the plantation, she discovers the sheer magnitude of slavery, as do we.


It is Cora’s horror at what she sees, and how her emotions appear on the page, that makes it so read. The lynching she sees from the loft is harrowing, with Cora ultimately averting her eyes.

‘She had never learned history proper, but sometimes one’s eyes are history enough.’

We also head short sections from other characters, learning their history and that path that bought them to this point. This is particularly interesting when it comes from the slave catchers and those involved in the underground railroad. While reading this book I kept asking myself, ‘Why would anyone help the fugitive slaves when the chance of death is so high?’ Not just death, but torture. While this makes these characters very humane; most of them have ended up involved by accident, rather than some high ideals, which is far more believable. Perhaps I am far too cynical.


Final Thoughts


Overall, I enjoyed this book. It was brutal and a realistic account of the American South and slavery. Whitehead’s characterisation helps us feel emotionally involved in Cora’s fate, and this, slavery. While the writing is good, it doesn’t match Tartt or Yanagihara. The beauty of this book is its handling of a difficult subject matter in a new way. It is a skill that got it nominated for the Man Booker Prize.

‘The Great War had always been between the white and black. It always would be.’