Review: The Underground Railroad

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Underground Railroad is grim, surreal, fantastical, and darkly satirical. It also rings true–as the acknowledgments attest, this is a fictional narrative built from a tradition of real stories from escaped slaves, from oral histories and the exemplary works of that antebellum literary genre. Its first sections are especially brutal to work through, as the violence and casual disregard for humanity of a slave-holding plantation are described in gruesome detail. The novel quickly deviates into moments of reality-straining fantasy, though, with a literal Underground Railroad, a skyscraper in South Carolina, and a hodgepodge mix of attitudes/philosophies/policies regarding race and labor that feel vaguely anachronistic when encountered from state to state within a narrative period of months. It’s a jarring experience, and it encouraged me to think of the book as not just pseudo-historical fiction but allegory for the contemporary systemic racism and injustice in America, and for continued racist policies post-slavery like black codes in the Jim Crow South or America’s flirtation with eugenics prior to the Second World War. While radically different in style and tone, the subject matter and surreal approach to a fictional slave narrative invites positive comparison to Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canda.

It took me a while to read this because it was hard to read. Not the writing, and not for lack of interest in the characters (and speaking of, the escaped slave protagonist held my sympathy and interest, but I had a dark fascination with the slave hunter antagonist with his bounty hunter iconography and bizarre black-boy sidekick). The sheer brutality and suffering and often a deep sense of hopelessness and despair, with only the faintest glimmer of hope and with so many senselessly tragic endings, made this very challenging to continue to engage with. It was worth it.

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