Whitehead, Colson "Underground Railroad" - 2016
I have read quite a few books about the Underground Railroad, the life of slaves and their slaveholders but never one that described the life of a fugitive as well as this one.
I have liked all the Pulitzer Prize winning books of the last years and this is no exception. A great story - Cora, a slave, who tries to run away from her abusive "master" - brilliant description of everyone involved, the slaves, their helpers, ordinary people who just think it's not right to own other human beings - and their enemies - the slave holders, the slave catchers and just those people who think they are someone better because their skin is lighter. What can anything make you think the colour of your skin says anything about you other than that you get sunburnt so much easier the lighter your skin is.
Anyway, back to the book. The story is written from many perspectives, we even get to know the opponents well enough, not that it makes us more sympathetic towards them. None of the narratives is written in the first person. That way, we don't identify with any of them as we might have if it had been written like that but I still identified a lot more with Cora and the other slaves and victims than I did with the other side of the party. Always on the side of the underdog.
Before reading this book, I had never thought about the Underground Railroad as exactly that, a railroad underground, literally underground. But it makes a nice story background.
In any case, a brilliant book. I'd like to read more by this great author.
From the back cover:
"Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell 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—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. 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. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. 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."
Colson Whitehead received the Pulitzer Prize for "Underground Railroad" in 2017.