Van has finished reading… The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

25 Oct

underground railroad


Imagine all the human race left behind were certain books, and the aliens that come to investigate the used-up husk that was Earth have only these as indicators of our existence, so they’d have to wonder: is this history or entertainment? Which shelf would your favourite books go on? As far as Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad goes, I’d bet the mortgage they’d go for history. In fact, forget aliens, I wouldn’t be surprised to see current readers googling it and finding themselves disappointed by the book’s subterfuge. Yes, it is that good.

The Underground Railroad tells Cora’s story. Born into slavery, abandoned by her mother at a young age and treated as an outcast on the plantation, as Cora comes of age she faces a stark choice: stay (and probably die), or run (and possibly die). And that’s where the fiction kicks in and The Underground Railroad sets itself apart in the ranks of novels centred on slavery in America. The reality of plantation life is there; the jeopardy inherent not only in running away but in simply being black in America is there; the range of responses from white people, from zealous application of the laws to rank indifference, is there (what a harrowing scene the plantation garden party presents!); but the Underground Railroad, that’s something else. With actual stations and engines and rails, it opens up the American south in a way the metaphorical railroad never could. And the chase is on, as we journey through various States, and their equally various laws and dispositions.

The characterisation is superb, with everything happening to a purpose, and while there are inevitably horrors in the portrayal of plantation life and the treatment of black people in the slave states, that purpose lends power to their presentation rather than their inclusion feeling gratuitous. No danger here of the reader maintaining an over-exposed distance from the narrative. And then there are the ads posting rewards for runaway slaves – real ads – to quietly underline that, while this is fiction, the facts of this history are not so distant, are close enough for the reader to feel the possibility held between the covers. Such is the power of the wrong done, of the will to escape, and the testament it speaks of those souls that such a feat really does feel possible. There’s an excellent refrain running through Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a joke written in the darkest ink, about looking out as you speed through, and finding the true face of America. And its punchline chimes with William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer. For all the necessary action, whether hidden or in plain sight, illegal or not, taken to bring a slave to liberty, it always comes down to one person. And freedom is never a thing that’s given. Freedom is a thing that must be claimed.

It’s an astonishing book that could find fans for many reasons – the quality of the writing, the historical and political context, the straight-up adrenalin of the chase – but the why is not so important. Just make sure you do pick it up. Read it, and then pass it along to the next station.

The Underground Railroad was published by Fleet in June 2017 ISBN:9780708898406

You can find Colson on Twitter @colsonwhitehead or at his website


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