Every month I aim to read a book that I’ve had over six months in an attempt to clear my back log and to give some older books a spot of attention. For July my pick was ‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead. And I picked it up when I discovered it was the Waterstones July Book of the Month and I can see why, it is brilliant.
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. All the slaves lead a hellish existence, but Cora has it worse than most; she is an outcast even among her fellow Africans and she is approaching womanhood, where it is clear even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North.
In Whitehead’s razor-sharp imagining of the antebellum South, the Underground Railroad has assumed a physical form: a dilapidated box car pulled along subterranean tracks by a steam locomotive, picking up fugitives wherever it can. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But its placid surface masks an infernal scheme designed for its unknowing black inhabitants. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher sent to find Cora, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom. At each stop on her journey, Cora encounters a different world. As Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once the story of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shatteringly powerful meditation on history.
I was utterly gripped by Cora’s story. It’s brutal, horrific and heart breaking, but it’s also powerful and full of hope. Cora never gives up on her dream to be ‘free’, we follow her journey across America on the underground railroad. It’s not an easy journey and it’s not a safe journey. She loses friends and her every step is dogged by slave catcher, Ridgeway.
Cora’s tale is also interspersed with the stories of some of the other characters we come across. I enjoyed these little extra stories, it adds insight into the people in Cora’s life and makes the story even more powerful. There are some characters that you will take to your heart, especially those that go out of their way to help Cora. Even in this dark period of history, there were people taking a stand and were not afraid to help those in need. There’s also a handful of characters that you will despise.
I am fascinated by the horrific things that humans have done to each other in the past and slavery is one of those subjects that I frequently read in my books. ‘The Underground Railroad’ gives a captivating look at this awful period in history and it even inspired me to do a little Googling.
This is probably one of the best books I’ve read this year and I cannot recommend it enough if you want something that will inspire and move you.