Wednesday, 7 September 2016

The Underground Railroad

Author: Colson Whitehead
Genre: Historical Fiction
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 306
Source: Local Public Library
Publisher: DoubleDay - Random House
First Published: August 2, 2016
First Line: "The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no."

Book Description from GoodReadsCora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all slaves, but Cora is an outcast even among her fellow Africans, and she is coming into womanhood; even greater pain awaits. Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her of the Underground Railroad and they plot their escape. Like Gulliver, Cora encounters different worlds on each leg of her journey. 

Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors of black life in pre-Civil War America. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman's ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

My Rating: 3 stars

My Review: This book has gotten quite the boost on social media especially with Oprah touting it as her latest book club read.  Even though Oprah and I have had a tempestuous (albeit one-sided) bookish relationship in the past I thought I'd give this book a try because the slavery era in the US is one of my favorite eras to read about.  It showcases the dichotomy of the indomitable spirit and resilience of human beings despite the most horrific, vile and degrading actions that one person can inflict upon another.

Even with all the hype and Oprah's seal of approval I wasn't a fan of this book. There was a lot of good description of the era, some emotional scenes of abuse which are vividly detailed and many diverse characters but it lacked a complexity to the plot and an emotional connection to the characters. Cora, and especially Caesar, felt underdeveloped with their inner feelings muffled to the reader. I also found the flow of the plot to be choppy as readers are repeatedly taken from the main plot into subplots and there were vast sections, mainly towards the end, where the plot would lag and my interest faltered.

But my biggest beef has to be the author's fictionalized idea of the Underground Railroad. He described it as an actual subterranean railroad which brought slaves to freedom.  I realize that his concept of the real Underground Railroad was stated on the cover and that it's a historical FICTION read.  But this subway of sorts is too far fetched and I feel that the author took too many liberties moving the book into the historical fantasy genre. My first issue is that it confuses people who already know about the Underground Railroad (I had to reread several sections when it was first introduced because I thought I had misunderstood his intent).  There was no actual railroad with tracks, engines and conductors.  Instead it was a vast, intricate network of people who risked their own lives to hide and help slaves escape to the north, many of which came here to Canada.  I've recently seen people posting pictures online of underground rail tracks in relation to this book.  Now I'm concerned that people who didn't know much about the actual Underground Railroad will now mistakenly think there was a train to carry people who were fleeing torture and death at the hands of the people who claimed that they owned them. I don't think that addition to this story does the real underground railroad justice.

There were a few things that I did enjoy about this book.  It details a different side to the era for me, specifically how former slaves were treated in the northern states and some of the racism that was still running rampant.  It was sad how the white population viewed and treated former slaves and their fear that this growing group would gain in power resulting in some white people proposing sterilization of the black populace.  This was all new information to me.

For someone like me who has read a lot about this era I felt this book was lacking in a few areas.  I tried not to compare it to books like Roots by Alex Haley (my favourite book), The Kitchen House and Glory Over Everything by Kathleen Grissom and The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (all stellar books) but, honestly, how can you not?

I feel like I'm supposed to wax poetic about this book and shout my love for it from the rooftops.  Everyone and their brother adores it but it just didn't do it for me. While it had great intentions this book didn't live up to the hype nor the vivid and engrossing books about slavery and the underground railroad that have come before it.

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