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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

November 1, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016) French title: Underground Railroad. Translated by Serge Chauvin

The Underground Railroad is my second Colson Whitehead, after the impressive Nickel Boys (2019) and I have Harlem Shuffle (2021) on the shelf for our Book Club.

The Underground Railroad is a historical novel set in pre-Civil War America. Cora, a sixteen-year-old enslaved girl flees from the plantation of her master in Georgia. Along with Caesar, another enslaved man, they reach a meeting point of the Underground Railroad that will lead her first to South Carolina and then to Indiana, via North Carolina and Tennessee.

We see the risks, the difficulties, the money owners put into finding the fugitives. Cora never feels safe, wherever she is. She has a hard time taking down the mental stronghold that her masters built in her head. She was raised on a land of fear, in a place where you didn’t know when you woke up if you’d be still alive and healthy at night. The success rate of actually leaving the plantation and starting over in a free state was extremely low.

The people who help with the Underground Railroad put their lives in danger too. Helping out enslaved people may have you killed. More progressive States had also hidden agendas. There’s no safe haven without a major change in white people’s mentality.

I read it while I was in South Carolina and visiting houses and plantations where enslaved people worked and were kept as well as the Old Slave Mart Museum. I know that everything that Colson Whitehead describes is accurate (unfortunately) and his book is very educational.

It’s written in a straightforward manner and gives the reader a glimpse of what being enslaved meant. I say “a glimpse” because we can’t pretend that we fully understand in our bodies and in our souls what bein enslaved entailed. It’s a good book for history classes and book clubs because it raises a lot of questions and fuels healthy discussion about slavery and its aftermath. It’s useful and we need this kind of books, like we need them on the Holocaust to spread information about what happened, put it at a human-sized scale and keep educating people. Over and over again.

As far as literature is concerned, I found that The Underground Railroad was a bit lacking. It doesn’t compare with a novel by Toni Morrison or with The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, but it’s not an issue because I have the feeling that Colson Whitehead’s goal was not literature but education.

I think that Handful in The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd was livelier than Cora. I was horrified by everything that Cora had to live through, her status as a sub-human and the way she was hunted like an animal. I was shocked by the atmosphere of hatred against black people and the ones who helped them and the idea of “great replacement” that starting seeping into white people’s way of thinking. This violence wasn’t as striking in The Invention of Wings, perhaps because the focus of the book was on Sarah Grimké.

It’s worth reading because it’s like watching a documentary with Cora as the main character. Just don’t expect a literary breakthrough in the style. It’s good, it’s efficient and it does the job. In these times of fake news and people re-arranging history and events for their own benefit and conscience of mind, The Underground Railroad is a necessary book, accessible to teenagers. The consequences of slavery in the USA still have an impact on the country nowadays and this book is a bridge to explain where it all began.

Incidentally, we were travelling back to Europe and happened to drive near Halifax, North Carolina. This city is officially tagged as a participant in the Underground Railroad. We stopped and paid a visit this old colonial town and its historical landmarks. It has a trail that leads to the spot of the Underground Railroad with explanations along the path.

They also had two books by Colson Whitehead in their Little Free Library on the street of the historic city center. We need all the help we can get to spread history and facts.

  1. November 1, 2022 at 7:25 pm

    I read this shortly after it came out and, like you, found it to be very powerful. Whitehead’s an interesting writer and I think his fiction is always worth checking out (that being said, I haven’t yet opened my copy of Nickel Boys!) I grew up in the American south (much further south than South Carolina!) and, again, agree with you that the historical evils of slavery can’t be emphasized too much.
    By coincidence, this morning I read a NY Times review of a soon-to-be released history of the Grimke Sisters. I gather it’s a bit of a revisionist treatment; what I find particularly interesting is that it includes an account of the sisters’ African-American relatives (their nephews, from a relationship their brother had with an enslaved woman). It really does sound fascinating, at a least to me! In case you’re interested:


    • November 1, 2022 at 7:29 pm

      My apologies for cluttering up your blog! I pasted a link and had no idea the NYT would stick in part of the review!


      • November 1, 2022 at 9:57 pm

        Don’t worry, it’s a fascinating article. Thanks for the link!

        This article explains the deep scars of slavery, ones you can feel in books by McBride, Whitehead and especially by Baldwin.

        I didn’t spend a lot of time in NC or SC but from the little I’ve seen, I had a feeling of a skin-deep repentence over slavery for the sake of political correctness and because one can’t deny the obvious. I had the feeling that the deep work of truly speaking of these times and their longlasting effects isn’t done, or if it is, it remains among academics and doesn’t reach the mainstream. (I’m talking about narratives in museums, for example.)

        The same could be said here about the war in Algeria and its atrocities. It improves but there’s still a lot to do.


    • November 1, 2022 at 10:02 pm

      I’ve read the article and I understand the author’s point. They can be a good way for the country to “buy itself a good conscience”, as we say in French. A way to say, “yes we did have early white people from the South who were opposed to slavery”.

      But isn’t it a bit easy to say the Grimké sisters could have done more? I’d surrender more easily to the argument if they had been men, with a greater liberty of movement.
      It was the first half of the 19th century, they were against formidable patriarchal forces and their emancipation is already remarkable.


      • November 1, 2022 at 11:28 pm

        I grew up among people who were (most likely) very similar to those you met in Charleston. And, yes, I too think that much of the current “repentance” for the horrors of slavery is pretty shallow.
        Regarding the Grimke sisters, I also felt the same way as you about the article, that is, I thought the historian’s treatment might very well be overly harsh. The sisters are iconic figures (from the little I know of them I’ve always been amazed by their lives); when writing of such, there’s a natural tendency to look for an “angle” to distinguish one’s particular book! At any event, the inclusion of material about the African-American side of the Grimke family sounds fascinating. I don’t read much history these days, but I’m hoping I get to Greenidge’s book in the next few months. I’d like to see for myself what I think of her assessment.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. November 1, 2022 at 11:10 pm

    LOL Emma, we can’t expect too many authors to be in the same league as Toni Morrison!
    Strange, I was just chatting a moment ago about how much history we learn from fiction. Even though part of The Underground Railway is magic realism, I still learned a lot about the resistance to slavery and how a network of people worked covertly to sabotage it.


    • November 2, 2022 at 11:21 pm

      Yes, you’re right, Toni Morrison is in her own league.
      I do learn a lot of history through fiction and if the author is thorough in their research, it’s an excellent way to learn new things.
      How is Underground Railroad magic realism?


      • November 2, 2022 at 11:42 pm

        *blush* I probably used the wrong word… I’m not great on how these features are defined. I use it to mean events in a novel that couldn’t possibly happen in real life.
        I don’t want to add spoilers here, but you know the bit where you go ‘huh? That can’t possibly happen? How did they do that?’
        The railway isn’t a real railway, it’s a metaphor.
        Same as in Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, where the couple ‘magically’ get from here to there without the author explaining how they did it, and you realise, they couldn’t possibly, but the author is not focussing on the journey but on what happens before and after they get there.


        • November 5, 2022 at 7:44 am

          Ah, ok, I understand. I’m not really good with these concepts.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. November 2, 2022 at 2:27 am

    Emma, have you read Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge? I think you might find it interesting. It features a bit of history that I don’t think is very well known about a black community in Brooklyn which was real; part of the book also takes place in Haiti, and there is a fascinating character based on a historical person. I blogged about it sometime last year and also included links to further information if you’re interested.

    I know what you mean about skin-deep; I once had to go to Alabama on a business trip and felt like I had gone back in time to the 1940s if not the 1840s.


    • November 2, 2022 at 11:19 pm

      I haven’t read Libertie, thanks for the recommendation. I’ll have a look at your review.


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