The Underground Railroad by Colsen Whitehead

Is The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead as good as they say? Does it deserve all the awards and high praise it has been getting, earning the author an interview on every public television and NPR show that still interviews authors?


There, I said it.

It’s a very good book.  I had a very hard time putting it down–ended up reading nearly 200 pages in a single sitting. I think it’s a book I would love to have a serious discussion about with a group of people who know much more than I do about American slavery.

But it has some serious ending problems, in my opinion, including a moment where the heroine simply breaks character to move the action forward.  I couldn’t believe she would do what she does. I won’t say more about that, spoilers, you know. And I found the ending to be rushed overall, too much deus ex machina to make The Underground Railroad as great a novel as everyone else seems to think it is.

Still, I liked it.

I’m going to assume everyone knows the basics, a young woman runs away from the plantation where she has been held as a slave via the underground railroad which is an actual railroad running through a system of tunnels throughout America.

It’s a clever idea, one the author exploits quite well.

Overall the novel is a travelogue as we follow Cora through a series of states where she experiences different ways America has treated Black Americans throughout history. At one point Cora reads a copy of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels which is a good comparison, and a good suggestion of how we should read The Underground Railroad.  Like Gulliver, Cora moves from one very strange society to another as she heads north.  Sometimes the things she experiences are nearly as strange as Lilliput or Brobdingnag.

But I think The Underground Railroad is really a post apocalypse story.  It follows the trajectory commonly found in such tales.  A lone hero, sometimes a group, escape a devastated location. They go through a series of stops.  The first few seem helpful at first, people who try to aid their escape, but things go wrong. They fall into the hands of people they should not trust who turn against them.  They discover what looks like a paradise only to find a dark secret truth about what is really going on. They set up a community which looks like it will make it before it is attacked suddenly and decisively.  Here they either win the battle and rebuild or flee one final time as the book ends.

I think it’s possible to read the history of Black America as a journey through a post apocalyptic landscape. Taking the journey by trains that never leave the tunnel only added to this feeling.

Cora rides the underground railroad three times in the novel.  Each time she is reminded of someone who told her that the only way to truly see what a country  is really like is to see it by rail, so make sure you look out the window when you ride a train.  I think this is anachronistic since rail travel was still relatively new in pre-Civil War America, but I’m willing to set that question aside since such an interesting point was being made here.  All Cora can see when she in on the train is the darkness of the tunnel.  She has no idea where she is going and all around her is darkness.

Is that what America is really like?

While I found that an excellent way to ask this question, it irritated me that it was asked three times.  Once, maybe on the final train ride, would have been enough, maybe on the first ride then just refer to the darkness the other two times. But three times with the same bit.

But I still recommend The Underground Railroad.  It was hard to put down; it does raise very interesting questions.  I appreciate an entertaining book that has something relevant to say. Even if it’s not as great as everyone says.

6 thoughts on “The Underground Railroad by Colsen Whitehead

  1. I liked this book a lot, but it didn’t make my best of the year list. I think it’s mostly interesting as a conversation starter. I agree that the pacing gets very shaky at the end, and the characters didn’t make much of an impression on me,

    1. I would list that as a second fault, the lack of memorable characters, but for the Gulliver’s Travels reference. We remember many things about Gulliver’s Travels but the characters are not what makes that a great book.

  2. I agree that it’s not the best book of the year, though for many people (ie, not “real” readers) it may be the most important book they could read right now. It didn’t make my top 5, nor even my top 10, but I did read it quickly and that means I liked it pretty well.

    I’m curious which part you thought Cora did that was out of character. Any way to hint?

  3. So spoiler warning here. Read no further if you like surprises. In the final scenes when the raid comes and she leads her captors to the railroad entrance. I just didn’t believe it. Earlier in the book she has mentioned people who died before revealing the railroad’s location. She gives in right away with almost no resistance at all. To me, that was simply out of character, more a way to move the story into a final underground battle, not something Cora would have done.

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