Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad won the National Book Award for Fiction and the GoodRead’s 2016 Choice Award for Historical Fiction. It has also received a great deal of praise prior to receiving these awards which may explain how in-demand it is. When I got on the wait list for this book, it was over 230 people long. When I returned it, it was 180 people long.
When delving into literary fiction, I’m often worried it will be flowery prose or get high off its own intellectualism and be as unreadable as possible. *cough*Faulkner*cough* Whitehead also managed to write a zombie novel that bored me. I had more than a few reasons to be cautious.
I was so happy to be wrong. The only thing that most people know about this novel is that the Underground Railroad is an actual railroad. This turns out to be an important piece to the story but only a piece in what turns out to be a human narrative. The novel is about a young woman named Cora and her tumultuous quest for freedom.
This book was very easy to read, the characters were easy to understand, and Whitehead painted a realistic portrait of slavery without going over the top. He didn’t hide the horrors but didn’t relish them either. There was so much tragedy and ugliness but it made the world feel real.
Slavery is not something that should be prettied up or made more comfortable. It was horrible and we should never forget how ugly humanity can be when given the chance. While I was often sad for Cora and her trials and pain, it made it feel more authentic. It wasn’t easy for the real people who went through a similar experience.
One thing I was incredibly grateful for was finding out the fate of Mabel. Cora spent her life believing Mabel abandoned her and ran off. We hear from many other side characters in between changes in Cora’s journey and finding out the truth of Mabel’s fate was a gift I did not expect to be given.
I highly recommend this story. I loved it. I hope it becomes required reading. 5/5