Colson Whitehead, the 2017 winner of the Pulitzer Prize in fiction as well as the National Book Award winner, writes a story that is both mesmerizing and brutally haunting as it revisits the dark part of American history that is slavery.
“The Underground Railroad is a reminder of the ways in which the pain of slavery transmits itself across generations, not just in overt ways, but how it changes hearts and minds,” said former President Barak Obama, as reported in The New York Times.
The story follows two slaves, Cora and Caesar, in their entrenched effort to find freedom in the underground railroad; which, in this case, is an actual railroad that leads the downtrodden to a life not bound in chains.
As the reader opens the first page ominously, it brings the fluttering of curiosity to halt. The novel begins with Cora’s grandmother Ajarry, who has been taken from Africa. Whitehead writes, “Two yellow-haired sailors rowed Ajarry out to the ship, humming. White skin like bone.” Whitehead, though writing pre-civil war fiction, writes these types of sentences that are terrifying, but also beautifully, stunning prose. The story is an instant page turner.
Caesar makes a plea with Cora to escape. At first, she says no. But then, though reluctant, she gives into his bid because her situation worsens with her master and other slaves. The other slaves begin to resent Cora when her mother, Mabel, ran to find freedom leaving her behind. This action results in the mistreatment of Cora from the others out of jealousy or spite, which also results in some bitter feelings that Cora has for her autonomous mother.
When Cora and Caesar make a run for it, the story becomes an idealistic thriller. Heart thumping faster and clammy palms make it difficult to hold the book, but it’s hard to put it down. While inevitably gaining bags under the eyes, paper cuts that are fresh and sore will be the sign of the merit this book is worthy of.
The runaways are chased by a putrid slave catcher named Ridgeway, who, by all means possible, wants to use slavery as an opportunity for eugenics. He says, “ It is the American imperative, to kill, steal, enslave, and destroy.”
Eventually, Cora is found by abolitionists Martin and Ethel, who harbor Cora as well as other slaves — being that this state has now abolished slavery, using indentured servants instead. Though raids happen in abolitionist states to find runaway slaves.
Whitehead writes a passage that he calls “ the Freedom Trail,” which portrays black people hanging from trees as far as the eye can see; the irony is nothing short of necessary to prove the point of the harsh realities that is America’s past.
The Underground Railroad is powerful, gripping and most of all inspirational. It is a book that can resonate with a lot of people, especially in our contemporary times with political unrest.