(Spoiler-Free) Book Review: The Underground Railroad
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is a beautiful and devastating novel that centers on Cora, a slave in mid-nineteenth-century Georgia, as she tries to escape to freedom. This book has been the recipient of plenty of awards, including the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. While I’m no literary scholar, this book seems to deserve the praise it’s received.
The Underground Railroad doesn’t pull any punches. The first chapter begins with a harrowing depiction of the slave trade as we follow one character from the shores of West Africa to auctions on the East coast of the US. Whitehead’s captivating descriptions highlight the bleakness and brutality of chattel slavery: it’s dehumanizing, morbid, sadistic, and stomach-churning.
One of the most difficult and compelling aspects of Whitehead’s novel is that it is so thoroughly human. Whitehead paints a palpable picture of slavery through the perspective of someone who is kidnapped and sold into it. This is a helpful antidote to the numbers and figures that are often tossed around when discussing major historical atrocities. While numbers and figures are essential, they remain abstract, veiling the depth of suffering we can encounter through personal narrative. As the infamous saying goes, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.” The Underground Railroad keeps a narrow focus on a few characters, adding a much-needed dose of humanity to the statistics.
Another humanizing element of The Underground Railroad is its multi-dimensional characters. When discussing crimes against humanity, we understandably crave a tidy good-evil binary where the “good guys” are spotless and the “bad guys” are irredeemable. But Whitehead resists this urge. In his narrative, upstanding and likable individuals engage in horrible acts, and heroic deeds are motivated by deplorable desires. And while there are a significant number of characters who can be classified as heroes and others as villains, we are often presented with backstories that add nuance and provide context for different beliefs and behaviors.
The Underground Railroad also paints a robust picture of sin. The main character, Cora, describes slavery in the US as “Stolen bodies working stolen land” (139). The book then explores how the sin of slavery infects all aspects of society. Whitehead’s depiction of sin is an excellent illustration of Cornelius Plantinga’s observation that sin is pollution (39). Sin is not just isolated individuals mistreating one another, it’s a disease that systematically contaminates everyone and everything around it. This novel highlights how the sin of racism weeds its way into every aspect of life, from entertainment to religion.
Needless to say, The Underground Railroad is a compelling read. It paints a vivid picture of American in the 1850s while using a little bit of fantasy to take the narrative, and its social commentary, in interesting directions. As any reader would suspect, this book is not easy to get through. While it can be a page-turner, each page is heavy with the weight of the book’s subject material. But this is to be expected. Slavery is harrowing, so any account of it should be, as well. Chattel slavery in the US was agonizing and relentless, and insofar as Whitehead wants to convey the gravity of that reality in this novel, he most definitely succeeds. The Underground Railroad forces the reader to wrestle with demons of the past, and carefully reflect on their present-day manifestations.