The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is a novel set in the antebellum era about a black girl, Cora, who escapes from a plantation in Georgia and continues to run north toward freedom. Along the way, she meets people who work the Underground Railroad (a metaphor turned physical), abolitionists, slave patrollers, and hunters. Cora is victim to and watches the horrors of slavery, hangings, torture, and the worst of people as she tries to survive. It is a brutal and horrifying account, which feels like only a fraction of how terrible slavery was. As with any runaway slave, Cora is subjected to the unrelenting onslaught of a brutal slave catcher, Ridgeway, tasked with finding Cora. At every reprieve in South Carolina, Mr. Fletcher’s attic, the farm in Indiana, Cora is lulled into thinking she is safe, but she isn’t. She never is. The story ends with Cora finally killing Ridgeway and exiting a railroad tunnel, which acts as a physical embodiment of her freedom.
Whitehead intersperses Cora’s narrative with some of the people she meets along the way, such as Ridgeway, Caesar, Ethel, and her mother Mabel. Each one shows the depths of how gruesome their lives are and the never-ending way they are tied to slavery. It is a novel that doesn’t shy away from terror in how it describes moments like the torture of a man whose genitals are cut off and stuffed in his mouth. The novel is devastating, compelling, and powerful, but above everything else, terribly sad.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
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Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.