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Archive: Other Books > The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (4 stars)

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message 1: by KateNZ (new)

KateNZ | 2207 comments I'm very glad that I've read this book, though I can't say it was enjoyable for the most part.

Most of that is the subject matter of course. Colson Whitehead does not skimp on details of the brutality and inhumanity of slavery in general and his principal character, runaway Cora's experiences in particular. It's all the more powerful because he reserves his most matter of fact language for the recounting of horrors. Cora herself is firmly, defensively unsentimental even when the people she loves most dearly are murdered or maimed or disappear. It's a technique that deliberately distances the reader a bit from what's going on, but is all the more powerful for it. I spent most of the book in a state of simmering anger...

There are moments of beauty, though. In particular, I loved a lot of the language, and some passages were outstanding, concise snapshots of time and space and personality. Unfortunately there were also episodes where it tended to be preachy - hard to avoid given the spectrum of what Whitehead was covering, but the writing tended to suffer and I put the book aside a few times. It left me feeling that the story was rather uneven, though actually those passages were probably in the significant minority and the rest of the book deserves more praise.

The story covers a lot of physical ground and so it had the chance to illustrate the variance in the laws between the states - that was a real highlight for me (occupational hazard!).

I was puzzled at first by the choice to make the underground railroad a literal railroad, with locomotives and all, but as the tale went on I appreciated the whimsical side of it more. The time between 'stations' was a welcome interlude in the chase (particularly once Ridgeway, the Javert-like slavecatcher comes on the scene), and also a good literary device - it quickly moved the characters between different states, attitudes and dangers. Having a physical railway running under barns and other hidden places also heightened the sense of danger somehow - it was something visible that could be discovered, tracks that would lead to escapees, incontrovertible evidence that would kill those who maintained it.

Overall, I'd reread it, and I'd recommend it.


message 2: by Susie (new)

Susie | 4488 comments Thanks for your review Kate. I keep toing and froing about this one as it has had such diverse reviews. The only way to know is to dive in!


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