Cora is the sum of her mother and grandmother. Her grandmother bought from Africa, stayed put. But her mother ran and Cora never heard of her again. Now she is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia and as she’s reaching womanhood her already wretched existence is about to get a whole lot worse. When newly arrived Caesar, a slave from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad and asks her to run with him the spirit of her mother comes out and she says yes.
To begin with I liked this book, the slave row that Cora lives in is very different from others I’ve read, distrust and betrayal run rife through it and though that’s uncomfortable in all honestly when people have been abused to that extent they’re not all noble and don’t all stick together.
But then this book took a sudden jolt off the rails. You see the author decided to imagine the Underground Railroad that so many slaves used to escape, as a real Underground Railroad. Running from the Deep South all the way to the north. Hmm. I was so confused I had to check if I’d been wrong all this time.
Though he didn’t make it a grand railway – just a series of dilapidated box cars some pulled by steam locomotives, some driven by hand pumps, I personally still found it disrespectful to the memory of freedom seekers and those that helped them.
However I persevered, the blurb told me that at “each stop on her journey, Cora encounters a different world. As Whitehead brilliantly recreates 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 the story of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shatteringly powerful meditation on history.” I thought that had to be worth reading and considering I’d seen this book all over Litsy and Instagram I knew it was popular.
Sadly I remained disappointed, it wasn’t an awful book, but to me I felt that the structure and the cleverness of the theme got in the way of what could have been an excruciatingly good book. Whitehead’s writing is wonderful, there are some sentences in there that would shame a poet. His characters are good, but again the structure got in the way as he had a habit of telling us about a character after they left the narrative- I would have cared about them a lot more if I’d known them better earlier.
This is a case of the new not outdoing the old. To understand the heritage of so many African-Americans and the horrors of the slave trade you’re better off reading Roots.
NB I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews