Martha's Reviews > The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
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really liked it
bookshelves: fiction, needs-trigger-warning, read-2017, black-authors

"For we are Africans in America. Something new in the history of the world, without models for what we will become."

A clever, brutal novel about slavery in 19th century America, entirely deserving of every award and accolade it's been given so far. The real-life Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by African-American slaves to escape, is reimagined as a literal railroad running through the heart of the story.

As a novel about slavery, there is a layer of brutality that needs trigger warnings for graphic physical and sexual violence. However, I thought this reflected the author's skill as the violence was never gratuitous. It was honest and necessary - this is a story about slavery! The brutality is the truth of history and it would be disingenuous to write a story that tried to avoid that. It's an uncomfortable story based on accounts of slaves' lived experiences that needs to be read.

"Later she said it was three kicks for three murders...But that was not the truth of it. It was all for her.

I really liked Cora. I've read reviews that found her character (and the secondary characters) to be underdeveloped and lacking in depth. However, I read it differently; Cora was this incredible young woman with such resilience in the most horrific circumstances. She acknowledges several times that she struggled to open up - to Caesar, to Royal. Where some see a lack of passion, I saw symptoms of her experiences, the PTSD-like withdrawal and auto-functioning seen in survivors of rape, abandonment and imprisonment. I was rooting for her throughout and I think a more overtly emotional protagonist could have actually lessened the overall impact of the narrative. Whitehead presents this harsh, violent reality in a very matter-of-fact way. It is cold, it is often dispassionate, but that's how he lands it in the most brutal way - because it was real. It's not sensationalism, it's truth. If Cora had been all emotion and hysteria, it could have felt like fantasy, more easily written off as the story of one rather than the story of many.

Beautiful, brutal, intelligent. MUST-READ.

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Reading Progress

August 25, 2016 – Shelved
August 25, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
May 13, 2017 – Started Reading
May 14, 2017 –
page 70
May 15, 2017 –
page 85
May 15, 2017 –
page 107
May 16, 2017 –
page 202
May 17, 2017 –
page 252
May 17, 2017 – Shelved as: fiction
May 17, 2017 – Shelved as: needs-trigger-warning
May 17, 2017 – Shelved as: read-2017
May 17, 2017 – Finished Reading
February 28, 2018 – Shelved as: black-authors

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