I never really warmed up to The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. I was expecting to be amazed and dazzled. I was expecting something different, something super interesting especially since I had heard he takes underground railroad literally and creates a network of underground train tunnels to aid the escape of runaway slaves from the south to the north. And that bit was interesting because Whitehead managed to imbue it with just as much peril as the historical underground railroad.
The story centers on Cora, a young woman on a plantation in Georgia. Her mother, Mabel, had escaped without her when Cora was younger. Mabel was never caught and Cora has spent her life since then resenting her mother for leaving her behind. Cora had no plans to try and escape until her owner unexpectedly dies and his brother takes over. This brother is known for treating his slaves on the neighboring plantation harshly and he has it out for Cora because she had defied him a time or two and made him look bad. So she runs away with another slave named Royal who loves her and had the plan set up already.
The pair is almost caught but they make it to the underground railroad station and end up in South Carolina. They get new names and false papers and jobs and Cora is staying in a kind of women’s boarding house for former slaves where she is provided an education. Everything seems to be going well until the white woman in charge of the boarding house talks to Cora about sterilization and asks her to encourage the other women to undergo the operation. Cora also learns that the men at the hospital where the women are sent regularly for health checkups all have syphilis and think they are being treated for it but they are not.
The place Royal and Cora thought they could make a new life turns out to be full of dangers too including a bounty hunter who is on the lookout for them. Cora escapes on the underground railroad but just barely. Her next stop turns out to be another kind of prison from which escape takes her to what seems a rural farming utopia. And once again, just when she thinks she will be able to settle down to a happy and free life, events conspire against her. And that is where the story ends.
We are told that Cora does eventually get to settle down and have a family but it seems such a far off and disconnected thing that it provides little satisfaction. The narration is also third person but it is such a limited third person that while we often know what Cora sees and thinks, we rarely know how she feels. It created a huge distance for me that kept me from being emotionally engaged with both Cora and the story. Without the emotional pull, I felt like the story was not especially compelling and oftentimes felt like a poor history lesson rather than a novel.
The book flap compares Underground Railroad to Gulliver’s Travels. While I can see what the description is aiming at, Cora is no Gulliver and this book is no satire. Perhaps all the buzz killed it for me. Or maybe it just wasn’t the right time for me to read it. Or who knows? I feel meh about Underground Railroad and kind of guilty about that since the book is on the short list for the National Book Award. But, as much as we might want to, we can’t like all the books, right? While it didn’t work for me, it might be the best book you read this year. You just never can tell with books sometimes.