Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad”

Whitehead’s novel is good.  The central device of the “real” underground railroad is imaginative and deftly deployed.  The horrors of slavery, the perversity of “benign” slavery, the tenuous freedoms of Indiana, and the interior life of the main character, Cora, are compelling.  Lots of powerful imagery and fine writing.  The subject matter, slavery, needs to be read about over and over again.  Whitehead does a tremendous job of an inherently impossible task: the awful pain of slavery has to be set in a novel where you want to keep reading, not as a voyeur, but as an empathetic and lucky survivor.  He succeeds.

That said, for me some parts of the novel did not work too well.  In particular, towards the end I found Cora’s regular “reflecting” back to earlier episodes in her life more like a novelist trying too deliberately to urge the reader to “Remember that great character I introduced earlier in the novel?  Sure you do, good old Ajarry, you know, the grandmother?”  For all of Cora’s reflecting back to her grandmother, she seemed not to remember that supposedly Ajarry’s cousins were possibly in “the City of Pennsylvania.”  Another part of the writing I did not like was the frequent use of clauses as sentences.  No verb.  Running into the woods.

But what do I know?  The reviews at NPR, The Guardian, LA Times, and NY Times are ecstatic.  Untempered praise.  Resonating with current political events.  Stand the test of time, maybe.

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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