THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, by Colson Whitehead, wasn’t slated for pub date until September 13. That was way before Oprah put her stamp of approval on it. It arrived on the scene early in August to huge fan fare. In fact, 200,000 copies were secretly shipped to bookstores who were sworn to secrecy. Hm.
Well, Mr. Whitehead must be especially pleased with this news. His personal stock just rose through the stratosphere. The publishing people at Doubleday must also be very happy:) And all rightly so. It’s a great book.
Over the years, I’ve both loved and not loved Oprah’s picks. She’s done so much good for books overall. What can I say? I am grateful. But, I know people who lift their eyebrows these days when confronted with a “new” Oprah choice. And that’s okay too. I “get” it.
Colson Whitehead brings us a novel filled with the angst of the slave. Cora is a young black slave whose mother left her behind on the Georgia plantation when she escaped…. never to be found. Cora’s hatred for her mother was almost as strong as her hatred for the horrible treatment she received by her “owners.” Over time, worn down by rape, beatings, and unbelievable hardships, Cora finally decides she has nothing to lose and runs with Caesar, another black slave.
Ron Charles, the editor of Washington Post’s Book World, says, “The conceit of Whitehead’s novel is oddly whimsical: He imagines that the Underground Railroad, the system of safe houses and clandestine routes used to smuggle slaves north, was in fact, an actual railroad built underground.”
What are they running to? Caesar knows someone who will hook them up with the Underground Railroad that runs from Georgia, north. This is where Whitehead fools with reality. You see, he’s imagined a real Underground Railroad complete with engine and boxcar, and it runs on rails totally under the ground. It’s gotten to through trap doors inside barns and homes. Or, just under some overgrown brush in an off-the-beaten-track field. And, yes, there are conductors and station masters. However, the beauty of this is that it works brilliantly without taking over the story.
Written with great feeling but, never avoiding the harsh reality of the times, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD gives us a unique perspective of the slave experience. Cora is such a sympathetic character. Her plight is such that we can not imagine what she is going through, but we just keep cheering her escape.
But there were people who chased runaway slaves for a living. Awful people. With even worse morals. Arnold Ridgeway was such a person. And it was his determination to catch Cora that drives most of this story. He keeps Cora paralyzed with fear. And rightly so because he is famous for being ruthless, plus, he is still prickling from the humility of never finding Cora’s mother….
This novel is being touted as a literary novel. Yes, it is, but I don’t want to scare anyone away. It’s so totally readable. And it’s great for discussion. I can hear some of you groaning even from my desk. You are thinking ….Not another book about slavery. I know you are thinking it. Yes, you. I hear you. I will admit it crossed my mind, too. But I am so glad I read this novel. I have totally fallen for Cora and I think you will too.
My finished hardcover came from Doubleday at my request. In exchange I am writing a fair review. I think it’s an important piece of literature that everyone will be talking about this season. Thanks so much!