I’ve read a novel by Colson Whitehead before, but that was several years ago in college. Now, with The Nickel Boys out, I decided to revisit him by reading his most famous work: The Underground Railroad, which tells the story of one woman’s journey from enslavement in the South to various places in America, learning about herself and this country along the way.
Cora, our protagonist, is interesting and intelligent. She’s not the most remarkable character I’ve ever encountered, but I rooted for her the entire time, despaired when she faced obstacles, and cheered whenever she managed to find solace or happiness. The other characters are also well-written. I loved Caesar, found Ridgeway troubling but fascinating, and loathed Randall. In all, a strong cast.
The writing of this is excellent and is where the power of this novel lies; Whitehead reveals the hardships of slavery with honesty but also with bitterness. After all, we all wish this were not America’s history, but it is, and we have to face that if we are to overcome its effects. He showcases various ways people can be racist with subtlety and skill. We see well-meaning educators who marvel at black people’s intelligence as if they are smart in spite of their race; a woman with the mindset of a missionary, who believes Christianity can save Africans from “savage ways” while willfully not understanding the validity and richness of their cultures; a slave catcher who does not harbor much ill will toward black people, even treating them with some measure of respect, but still accepting the institution of slavery as just a part of life. Whitehead presents all these points of view matter-of-factly to allow the reader to draw their own conclusions.
However, the plot feels a bit directionless at times, with Cora not having a clear goal. (Well, other than to escape her enslavement.) And I thought I’d see more of actually riding the Railroad, which was one of the most interesting changes Whitehead made to this otherwise historically accurate tale. Having the railroad be a literal steam engine with tracks and stations that have been built under American soil added a cool element of almost–magical realism, and I wanted to see it more than we did.
In the end, though, this book is a brilliant but devastating glimpse into America’s dark past. The characters are great and the themes subtle but strong. Whitehead is such an adept writer, and really, we should all examine how what he writes about still has relevance today.
Overall rating: 8.4/10