The Underground Railroad

Elizabeth Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, The Nineteenth Century Leave a Comment

Title: The Underground Railroad

Author: Colson Whitehead

Publisher: Doubleday; 1st Edition

Copyright: August 2, 2016

ISBN: 978-0385542364


Format: E-Book, 320 Pages

Genres: Historical Fiction,  African American Historical Fiction, Thriller

Price: $22.04 [Amazon Paperback], $12.99 [Kindle], $16.17 [Amazon Hardcover], $28.00 [Audible], $22.04 [Barnes & Noble Paperback], $21.56 [Barnes & Noble Hardcover], $13.99 [Nook], $13.99 [Google Play], $13.99 [iBooks], $23.95 [Apple Audiobooks]


Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood-where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned-Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor-engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey-hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates 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 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.


Cora is a young woman who has spent her entire life under the yoke of slavery, living at a cotton plantation owned by the Randall family. For Cora, life has been anything but easy and it’s like fate dealt her a cruel hand. When she was a little girl, her mother Mabel escaped from the plantation and left her behind to fend for herself. At the very beginning of the book, the narrator describes the life of Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry, who was stolen from her homeland of Africa. We discover that Cora has aspects or facets of her grandmother and her mother within the scope of her own personality.

Opportunity presents itself in the form of a recent arrival at the plantation, a young man by the name of Caesar. The opening line of the book reads: “THE first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no” (Whitehead). The narrator explains that the part of her that said “no” was from her grandmother Ajarry but that the part of her that wants to run away is from her her mother Mabel.

As Cora and her fellow workers are having a party one night, James and Terrance Randall make an appearance. Mr. Whitehead masterfully renders the scene and describes the Randall brothers right down to the white trousers that they wear – causing them to appear like ghosts. From the outset, it is established that James Randall is a decent man (if one can say such of a man who holds his fellow human beings in bondage) and Terrance is an absolute terror. James is the one who owns the plantation. Terrance on the other hand has no qualms about violating young women on their wedding nights and he is an overall creep, leering at the young women during the dance.

Terrance orders all the slaves to continue on partying and dancing for his amusement. Everyone then proceeds to dance until something happens. Terrance Randall points his finger accusingly at a young boy Chester who bumped him and had caused him to spill wine onto his white trousers. What follows is that Terrance proceeds to beat the boy with his cane. Something in Cora snaps and she makes an attempt to fend off Terrance’s blows while stepping in front of Chester to protect him.

Not longer after, James Randall dies and bequeaths the plantation to his demonic brother, Terrance. When he takes control of the slaves and the plantation, things only grow worse. There is a man by the name of Big Anthony and he is subjected to all sorts of abuses. On the first day he is kept in the stocks. On the second day, the sadistic Terrance invites a whole slew of friends he made on his travels to have lunch while they watch Big Anthony be flogged. What happens to Big Anthony on the third day is an unspeakable horror but it involves him being roasted alive. Cora and her fellow workers as well as Terrance’s guests watch as the poor man is set alight. In a dramatic conflagration of a scene, Terrance takes the opportunity to speak to his slaves about how everything in the plantation will be different. Not only does the scoundrel up the quota of cotton picked everyday but he says he will only allow them to have feasts on Christmas and Easter. As he is inappropriately touching Cora, he announces that all marriages will be arranged by him and have to be approved by him.

Caesar and Cora finally fix on a night to escape. Unfortunately, Lovey, one of Cora’s friends discovers that they are escaping and decides to leave with them, not giving the duo much of a choice. As they are walking through the woods, they are attacked by three men and Cora is accosted by a boy. During the exchange, Lovey is hauled away by two men as Cora kills the boy for her own survival. After that, Cora and Caesar escape into the night to go meet the abolitionist (called the “conductor”) who is willing to help them.

When I saw this book was suggested by Oprah Winfrey (knowing her pretty good taste in books), I sat down to read it. I had initially thought this to be a standard historical fiction work. General historical fiction books often tend to emphasize the historical accuracy. With Mr. Whitehead’s book, there is a lot of historical inaccuracy but in my opinion, that adds to the appeal. That being said, I am often a stickler for historical accuracy in a historical fiction work but Cora’s travels border on the folkloric.

Mr. Whitehead’s book “Underground Railroad” came across as very jarring and very real to me but at the same time, bordering on the fantastical. This book is the imagined world of the author who envisions the historic abolitionist network, the Underground Railroad as a series of subterranean tracks and tunnels. On numerous occasions, Cora is in a dark subterranean locale and there are always a set of tracks involved. The men who shepherd herself and her fellow escapees such as Caesar, are referred to as conductors and that is something I found curious.

Although it wasn’t entirely clear to me in the beginning, towards the end I began to realize that this book reminded me of something akin to Dante’s Inferno, Homer’s Odyssey, or Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. While the story has its folkloric aspects, the horror of slavery and the depiction of one man’s inhumanity to another was very real. Since I don’t want to ruin any surprises, I will be vague here, but there are multiple instances where white Southerners treat the enslaved people in a terrible manner. There is one instance, when Cora is in North Carolina, when the white people gather together to celebrate a Friday evening together. These evenings consist of a people getting together to celebrate their “good fortune” but they always conclude the event with hanging an escaped slave.

I found this a difficult book to stomach and there were instances where this book brought tears to my eyes. Overall, it was a good book and a worthwhile one to read. The imagination of the author combined with the larger-than-life personality of the heroine, Cora was refreshing. Cora grew up in a harsh environment where she had to fend for herself and where there was very little kindness showed her. Despite all of the adversity she came up against, she always had a fighting spirit and that endeared her to me. Along with Cora, I enjoyed the characters Caesar and Royal who both were unique in their own ways. Do I recommend this book? Yes. It was interesting and I was engrossed from start to finish.


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