You probably know that Oprah Winfrey picked The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead for her book club in September. For some readers, Oprah’s attention is a deterrent, but not for me. From Charles Dickens to Jane Hamilton, a lot of my favorites are on her list. So, Oprah’s endorsement (“It took my breath away,” she told Whitehead), and Pamela Paul’s extended interview with the author on the New York Times Book Review podcast, had me rushing to experience this book.
This is the story of Cora, a slave on the Randall Plantation in Georgia, who steals off toward freedom, as her mother did before her. She relies on the Underground Railroad, in this case an actual subway car and series of tunnels buried deep in the poisoned and bloody earth, to inch her way toward liberty. Each stop on the railroad – South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee – represents what Whitehead calls in the Oprah interview, “another American possibility.” Each of these – even those that seem innocuous enough – is violent and insidious in its own way. The reader can’t help but draw comparisons to the iterations of modern American racism, covered daily in the “official” news and on Twitter and YouTube. As Cora runs, a slave tracker, Ridgeway, stalks her on horseback, chains ready for her body. In several disturbing monologues which mirror whites’ perpetual biases through time, Ridgeway stakes his claim on Cora and explains his motivation. Throughout, Whitehead drills down the concepts of whiteness, blackness, freedom, and enslavement. Brutal and meticulous, this is required reading.
Whitehead is imaginative, skilled, and unrelentingly specific. Cora’s horror is our horror. Whitehead develops minor characters, too, assigning them both distinct and emblematic qualities that alternately bind readers in affinity and repel them. Although I almost always love audiobooks, this is one book I wish I hadn’t listened to – there are sentences and passages I felt compelled to write down. There are chapters I needed to re-read. The structure and language have complexity that I found hard to follow at times via headphones.
Narrator Bahni Turpin handles the complexity well. I especially enjoyed her performance of the vignettes about Cora’s mother and grandmother. In those, she adopts a more distant storytelling voice that floats over the rest of the narrative. As I mentioned above, I don’t recommend listening to this novel, but it’s all to do with how difficult and important the work is – nothing to do with Turpin’s performance.
The Bottom Line
Read it. Now or later. It details the racism on which our country was founded and the enduring trauma of our collective past.