The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.
Anchor Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2016.
Adult fiction, 313 pages.
Lexile: 890L .
AR Level: not yet leveled
Cora is a young woman on a Georgia plantation when a new arrival asks her to run away with him. Only one slave has ever successfully escaped the Randall plantation, but Caesar believes that if they run together, they’ll make it to the elusive Underground Railroad.
It took me a good while to get to this one. I’d seen a lot of mixed reviews, and in general I’m not a fan of magical realism (which is what most people were calling this). Finally I saw this at Target and decided to use it as one of my targetpicks selections.
Going into the read with low expectations definitely helped this novel blow me away. It’s a very difficult book to classify. Whitehead uses elements of many different genres, including historical fiction, adventure, science fiction, magical realism, and realistic fiction.
In the end, I would peg this as literary fiction. I ended up at this (debatable) classification because this novel is like an onion. Like the best literary fiction, there are layers upon layers of meaning beyond the action and vivid characterization.
The main character is Cora, but we aren’t always looking at the world from her viewpoint. The chapters alternate – first a chapter about a particular character other than Cora, then a chapter more focused on her set in a particular location. In this way we get both a wide and weirdly narrow picture of the world, learning the full life stories of side characters but also viewing every event through the lens of one particular slave.
Because of the dream-like quality of some parts, I didn’t feel a rush to finish this book, but at the same time I never fully put it aside. On my first read-through, so many things were confusing. Much is made about how each train takes passengers to a different place, so at first I thought this was a science-fictional device that would take people to alternate worlds. But it’s actually more of a literary device to explore a variety of futures and pasts.
Spoilers / There isn’t much resolution. We never find out how or why the railroad was created, nor do we learn Cora’s ultimate destination. I think this is a large part of why many people don’t like it, but I was surprisingly okay with how it ended. While I would have liked to have learned more about what happened next, it felt like a mirror of what happened to many slaves – the separation, uncertainty, and lack of finality. / End of Spoilers /
This book is definitely intended for adults. Besides the adult language and graphic violence one could expect in a novel about an escaping slave, there are also rapes, torture, forced sterilization, and truly horrendous murders. The worst part is that the most extreme actions shown are typically based on true events.
There is a teacher’s guide should you want to use it with high school students (I would not recommend it for general classroom use with younger students because of the intense content and the amount of background information needed for comprehension – some students may be able to read it younger but pre-read.)
One aspect that surprised me was just how many people assumed I was reading a work of informative non-fiction about the Underground Railroad. Most of this book was read in small chunks while traveling, and it sparked a lot of confused conversations.
I’m so enveloped in book world that I sometimes forget how few people care about reading in general, let alone diverse books. To me the cover is memorable and iconic, but for most, even when I explained that it was a novel, trying to convey the full depth of it (not just historical fiction) was a challenge. And this is a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award Winner as well as a NYT Bestseller! It made me feel depressed about the future of reading, and diverse reading if even this very popular book was rarely recognized.
In the end, just as most have felt uncertain about the ending, I feel uncertain about the role of this book. It is an important and necessary work, but also seems “trendy” and it seems most readers aren’t getting to the depths of Whitehead’s message, which is probably a statement on the state of our biased education system. There are so many allusions to real historical events as well as references to other works of literature. For myself, I know that two read-throughs have barely broken the surface of meaning. This text rewards rereading.
Whitehead’s book is difficult to describe, but what it does, it does well. This deserved the Pulitzer it received! Recommended.