The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

*I received an advance-read copy of this novel from the publisher, Doubleday, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Hardcover, 320 pages
Expected publication: September 13th 2016 by Doubleday

I was really looking forward to this read! I had an interesting relationship with The Intuitionist, having read it in college and not quite grasped it then came back to it later and enjoyed it more. I love everything that Colson Whitehead is about (and I hope to read Zone One soon), but this particular foray into his work turned out to be a little less than a love affair for me.

The Underground Railroad starts on the Randall plantation in Georgia around 1812. This plantation is an amalgamation of every horror and tragedy you’ve ever heard of about slavery. Slaves are beaten and raped for amusement, even on display for the entertainment of guests sipping lemonade; attempts at fleeing from bondage or bucking the system are (often arbitrarily) met with public displays of execution, from being strung up and castrated to a good ole-fashioned tarring and feathering. Life on the plantation is as rough for women—who are used as breeders for more slaves, hence more money, and are constantly at the mercy of male appetites, both from those in the ivory tower and those in the fields—as it is for the laboring men. In the midst of it all, Cora, a stray who’s gained a bit of a scarlet letter because her mother fled the plantation and left her behind years back, starts her long journey to freedom one quiet night with nothing but a sack of unripe turnips, two companions and the North Star as their guide. But the untold horrors that she will face ahead of her on this trek will sometimes rival those that she left behind. With a bounty on her head and dreams of education and freedom beckoning her forward, she will stop through a slew of Southern states—all with their own systems of Southern justice and oppression—and find herself on Whitehead’s re-envisaged Underground Railroad.

Within these pages, you’ll embark on a re-imagined historical truth that could only be a creation of Colson Whitehead. Here, the Underground Railroad is—get this—an actual train (or a single, rickety locomotive, but you get the point), complete with a conductor. At times that term is more allegorical than actual, but even the conductors have their own pasts that, at times, ensnare Cora in their trap-like grasp. Human sterilization to control the growth of the Negro population (which, in some states, “problematically” rivals the numbers of the white population), blackface, and the Tuskegee Project are all touched on here, are all experienced by our heroine in some periphery of her journey.

Those are the goodie takeaways.

Now for my qualms. This novel would’ve been better served being written in first person, for Cora’s chapters at the very least. This is a harrowing journey, a terrifying trek into the unknown for a young woman who has never been outside of the confines of the Randall Plantation for her entire life. She’s never worked for her own wages, never bought her own new dress, never even been to see a doctor. We want to see, touch and taste every moment of what she feels. We want to quiver when she quivers and scream when she hurts. We want to experience these truths re-imagined for ourselves, because this is a remarkable journey set in a harrowing past that our country would rather keep hushed and obscured. To truly break us out of this—to truly immerse us in this and better make the point that he sought to make—we should’ve been squarely in Cora’s shoes, not watching her from above in a slightly removed, vaguely clinical 3rd person.

While Whitehead’s intellectualism serves his plots well, it doesn’t do the greatest wonders for soulful and immersive execution. Perhaps that comes down to being a matter of personal preference. I found his writing style, as was the case in his The Intuitionist as well, to be talented but, yes, just a tad by the way of clinician. And finesse—oh, finesse, thou art an allusive thing! Honestly, there wasn’t a lot of it here, and by that I mean that this was quite the bull-ride read: jerky and rough. I had to re-read several passages, because segues from one event to the next were often non-existent. Suddenly, you were in a saloon, or in the middle of an attack by rogue outlaws, then learning letters in a schoolhouse. Literally, a person could go from alive to dead in a single, four-sentence paragraph! Um, what?? (Shaking head vigorously.) What just happened now?

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Also, I could’ve done without the backstory chapters of the minor characters. Every single one of those “let-me-elaborate-on-this-(minor)-character’s-past-life” chapters could’ve been gutted from this manuscript—all except for one. And that one you’ll know when you read it.

Still, Colson Whitehead managed to touch on the justifications and absolutions that the antebellum South descriptionwhispered to themselves at night to justify their actions, biblical references that laid the way for Manifest Destiny and all the other gluttonous rationalizations that makes slavery possible, in any land, in any era. And for that, I applauded him.

The story itself was great—a truly epic adventure—but the pace at which it jerked, sometimes lullingly slow and others at whiplash-inducing speeds, turned me off. And, I have to say, any novel where I feel even the slightest urge to skim and skip ahead can never get 4 stars from me. But his work is definitely unique in its own right, and for that I would absolutely recommend this novel to anyone who has read the blurb and marked it as to-read, to anyone who’s already familiar with Whitehead’s talents and appreciated them, and for those who have yet to become familiar with them. I have a deep respect for this author; the style just didn’t work for me the way I’d hoped this time, and for that I award 3.5 stars ***

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