Just Read: The Underground Railroad By Colson Whitehead – 2016 #NationalBookAward Winner @ColsonWhitehead

The Underground Railroad Book Review On Novels And Nonfiction

It goes without saying that going into reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead I had huge expectations. It was an Oprah pick, has received endless buzz in the bookish world since its publication in August 2016, and most recently was selected as the 2016 National Book Award winner for fiction. Basically, it’s a pretty big deal.

I was prepared to be at least marginally disappointed but instead the novel not only met but exceeded all of my expectations. It’s gorgeously written, moving, thought-provoking, and magical while remaining historically accurate and painful to read. I had to join the bandwagon by giving it an extremely well-deserved 5 star review.

As a side note, I’ve been looking for a good nonfiction book on the history of the underground railroad, but have had a hard time finding one with consistently good reviews. I purchased and started reading Bound For Canaan by Fergus M. Bordewich, but I found his writing lacked cohesion, which made the book very hard to follow. He strung descriptions of people and anecdotes along with not much to connect them to a larger overarching point. I may have given up on it too soon though and may have to revisit it. If you’ve read it can you let me know what you thought in the comments?

The Underground Railroad on Novels And NonfictionThe Underground Railroad

by Colson Whitehead

Published: August 2nd 2016


Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood – where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor – engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

What I Liked

The complexity of the main character, Cora. I think it would have been easy to make Cora a more straightforward character. She’s clearly and justifiably traumatized from having grown up a slave on the Randall plantation and then having been abandoned by her runaway mother at only 10 years old. Whitehead could have written her as loudly bitter and angry, but instead there’s a quietness and a depth to her character which somehow make her even sadder and more forlorn to the reader. Cora has learned to contain her personality and her thoughts within the relatively safe physical confines of her body, which I feel would have been a very natural survival mechanism for a person trapped in the yoke of slavery and unsure of who to trust during her escape. It makes it as hard for the reader to get to know her as it is for the other people she encounters throughout the narrative, though she does open up slightly to other African Americans she meets and even a few of the benevolent white characters. I think how closed-off and indecipherable Cora is made her a much more compelling character for me as a reader. By the end of the book I had a thorough understanding of all of the terrible vicissitudes she had been through, but still felt like there would have been so much more to learn about Cora as a woman and person had she been able to really come into her own in a finally peaceful situation, free from the constant worry of being discovered and killed.

How developed a lot of the secondary characters were – even some of the evil ones. Several of the secondary characters in Colson Whitehead’s novel – both among the positive characters and the negative ones – are given their own chapter which explores their backstory, bringing it to light against their role in Cora’s escape. Among these are slave-catcher Ridgeway, unwilling slave-smuggler Ethel, and Cora’s fellow escapee Caesar. These flashbacks into other character’s lives really added to the complexity of the narrative, and I felt like I was getting so much more insight into these secondary character’s origins, motivations and opinions. Again, it would have been easy for Whitehead to provide relatively redeeming backstories for some of his more awful characters – like giving the slave-catcher a traumatic childhood. In fact, Ridgeway, the slave-catcher, has a career as a blacksmith ready and waiting for him, but actively pursues the abominable road of hunting other humans as prey. By staying away from contrived narrative mechanisms, Whitehead’s characters come off as more realistic and more subtle at the same time. These forays from the main story that delved deeper into the origins of secondary characters did not feel like needless interruptions, but rather pieced together a broader and fuller narrative.

The writing. Colson Whitehead can write a beautiful sentence, and there are hundreds of them in this book. I really enjoyed reading portions of the book aloud (to my unsuspecting rabbit Sammy) to feel the sentences roll off my tongue in their fullness and roundness. Through his clear and powerful writing, Whitehead is able to insert complex ideas about the history of slavery and its unethical and immoral nature with a believable spontaneity into the thoughts of his characters. Whitehead rarely uses direct dialogue, preferring inner monologues or descriptions of actions. I felt that this type of writing, which forgoes a feeling of immediacy through the relative absence of spoken exchanges, gave a historic and timeless feeling to the narrative, as if it was a folk tale or legend recounted by an ancient narrator. I actually prefer books with limited dialogue, and I’m still trying to understand why. I prefer dialogue to be described in narrative style rather than in the direct style in which it’s inserted in the middle of a narrative. In part, I think Whitehead’s limited use of spoken exchanges stays true to the story itself, in which slaves had little opportunity to speak their minds, and in which an escapee like Cora would have had to spend large portions of her life hiding in silence from her hunters.

What I Didn’t Like

There wasn’t much I didn’t like about this book. A couple of the character interactions felt a bit disingenuous, particularly one between the slave-catcher Ridgeway and Cora. I don’t want to go into details about it because I don’t want to spoil any of the plot, but you may know the moment if you come upon it in your reading. It really wasn’t a significant reason for me to downgrade my love for the book. I enjoyed every minute of reading it, and wished there were more pages left when I got to the end.

Final Verdict

5 Rabbits Rating On Novels And Nonfiction

Whitehead brings to life the harrowing escape of slave-girl Cora, as she travels the tunnels of an imaginary, physical underground railroad looking for peace and freedom from her shackles. Moving and thought-provoking, disturbing but also at times uplifting.

About The Author

Colson Whitehead Image On Novels And Nonfiction

Colson Whitehead is the author of six novels, including his debut work, the 1999 novel The Intuitionist, and the National Book Award-winning novel The Underground Railroad, which was also an Oprah pick. He has also published two books of non-fiction. In 2002, he received a MacArthur Fellowship. Whitehead was born in New York City on November 6, 1969, and grew up in Manhattan. He graduated from Harvard University in 1991.




Other Novels By Colson Whitehead

the-intuitionist-book-coverThe Intuitionist (2000)

Kindle   Paperback

Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)

Verticality, architectural and social, is the lofty idea at the heart of Colson Whitehead’s first novel that takes place in an unnamed high-rise city that combines 21st-century engineering feats with 19th-century pork-barrel politics. Elevators are the technological expression of the vertical ideal, and Lila Mae Watson, the city’s first black female elevator inspector, is its embattled token of upward mobility. When Number Eleven of the newly completed Fanny Briggs Memorial Building goes into deadly free-fall just hours after Lila Mae has signed off on it, using the controversial “Intuitionist” method of ascertaining elevator safety, both Intuitionists and Empiricists recognize the set-up, but may be willing to let Lila Mae take the fall in an election year.

John Henry Days Book Cover On Novels And NonfictionJohn Henry Days (2002)

Kindle   Paperback

Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)

Colson Whitehead’s eagerly awaited and triumphantly acclaimed new novel is on one level a multifaceted retelling of the story of John Henry, the black steel-driver who died outracing a machine designed to replace him. On another level it’s the story of a disaffected, middle-aged black journalist on a mission to set a record for junketeering who attends the annual John Henry Days festival. It is also a high-velocity thrill ride through the tunnel where American legend gives way to American pop culture, replete with p. r. flacks, stamp collectors, blues men , and turn-of-the-century song pluggers. John Henry Days is an acrobatic, intellectually dazzling, and laugh-out-loud funny book that will be read and talked about for years to come.

Apex Hides The Hurt Book Cover On Novels And NonfictionApex Hides The Hurt (2006)

Kindle   Paperback

Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)

When the citizens of Winthrop needed a new name for their town, they did what anyone would do—they hired a consultant. The protagonist of Apex Hides the Hurt is a nomenclature consultant. If you want just the right name for your new product, whether it be automobile or antidepressant, sneaker or spoon, he’s the man to get the job done. Wardrobe lack pizzazz? Come to the Outfit Outlet. Always the wallflower at social gatherings? Try Loquacia. And of course, whenever you take a fall, reach for Apex, because Apex Hides the Hurt. Apex is his crowning achievement, the multicultural bandage that has revolutionized the adhesive bandage industry. “Flesh-colored” be damned—no matter what your skin tone is—Apex will match it, or your money back.

Sag Harbor Book Cover On Novels And NonfictionSag Harbor (2009)

Kindle   Paperback

Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)

The year is 1985. Benji Cooper is one of the only black students at an elite prep school in Manhattan. He spends his falls and winters going to roller-disco bar mitzvahs, playing too much Dungeons and Dragons, and trying to catch glimpses of nudity on late-night cable TV. After a tragic mishap on his first day of high school—when Benji reveals his deep enthusiasm for the horror movie magazine Fangoria—his social doom is sealed for the next four years. But every summer, Benji escapes to the Hamptons, to Sag Harbor, where a small community of African American professionals have built a world of their own. In this deeply affectionate and fiercely funny coming-of-age novel, Whitehead—using the perpetual mortification of teenage existence and the desperate quest for reinvention—lithely probes the elusive nature of identity, both personal and communal.

Zone One Book Cover On Novels And NonfictionZone One (2011)

Kindle   Paperback   Hardcover

Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)

In this wry take on the post-apocalyptic horror novel, a pandemic has devastated the planet. The plague has sorted humanity into two types: the uninfected and the infected, the living and the living dead. Now the plague is receding, and Americans are busy rebuilding civilization under orders from the provisional government based in Buffalo. Their top mission: the resettlement of Manhattan. Both spine chilling and playfully cerebral, Zone One brilliantly subverts the genre’s conventions and deconstructs the zombie myth for the twenty-first century.

Have you read The Underground Railroad or any of Colson Whitehead’s other novels? What did you think of them? Let me know in the comments.

If you’d like to keep up to date with posts on Novels And Nonfiction, make sure to follow me on WordPress, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest.

You can also read other recent reviews on the blog including for historical fiction novel News Of The World by Paulette Jiles, memoir Under The Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes, astronomy related titles Hidden Figures by Margot Shetterly and The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel, and medical memoir Working Stiff by Judy Melinek MD and T.J. Mitchell.

Please note this post contains affiliate links from Book Depository.

  21 comments for “Just Read: The Underground Railroad By Colson Whitehead – 2016 #NationalBookAward Winner @ColsonWhitehead

  1. January 26, 2017 at 5:22 pm

    Great review!! Your review and Amanda from Cover2CoverMom have been my favorite reviews for this book. I’m still on the very long library wait list so I may just buy this one. I’m always hesitant when Oprah recommends something because in the past I haven’t liked her selections. This one sounds like one she got right though

    Liked by 1 person

  2. January 26, 2017 at 7:25 pm

    This is a wonderful review! I really appreciate character development, as you know, so this book is high on my to read list! Unfortunately, I am number 251 on the library waiting list! 😳
    Great review- I’m so glad you found only a rare few things you disliked. I haven’t read any of Whitehead’s other novels, but Apex Hides the Hurt is on my TBR. I also, sadly, don’t have any nonfiction recommendations for you… 🙁 I hope you find some good ones!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Annie
    January 26, 2017 at 8:48 pm

    There has been so much talk about this one! So glad it didn’t disappoint, I think it’s hard these days with all the hype…

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 27, 2017 at 12:45 am

      I agree Annie – I was very wary going into it. Sometimes award winning books turn out to be really unappealing to me. It’s no guarantee for sure.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. January 26, 2017 at 9:09 pm

    I’l definitely eventually be reading this book. It sounds like it deserves all the attention it’s getting!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. February 4, 2017 at 9:34 pm

    I’m glad to hear this lived up to the huge amount of hype for you! I know that can make it hard for me to like a book. I should really pick this up! Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any nonfiction to recommend on the topic, but if you find anything, I’ll be interested to hear about it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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