I finished reading Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, a few days ago. While I’ve made some notes for a review, I need to sit with it some more.
The novel is that good. Whitehead is that good.
Certain books are so steeped in reality that I feel a little guilty enjoying them. The Nickel Boys, his other Pulitzer prize-winning novel is like that. This one, too. With books like this I have to remind myself that it’s ok to like the story; it’s alright to enjoy a scene or a deliciously phrased comeback line.
It’s one of those books that sticks with you for a while, I keep turning different scenes over in my mind. I’ll be back with more. But I can already recommend this magical, harsh and hopeful novel.
First of all, the railroad is real. Threw me off at first, (is that true, how did I not know this?) but I caught up. It’s a nice element, a physical place to go along with the conductors and stations that helped slaves escape into freedom.
Cora is the center of this story. Born into slavery, she was abandoned by her mother, Mabel, when she was a child. Mabel escaped, which makes her a legend and inspiration, but she also left her girl behind. Cora is smart, angry and defiant. You root for her and hope for a happy ending for her: some relief and security, a life on her own terms.
The characters in The Underground Railroad are three dimensional: you can see them vividly. Whitehead has a talent for creating a person and building a scene with just enough words. He puts sentences together that cut right through you. His style sort of reminds me of noir writers, like James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice). Terse, tight, matter-of-fact. Not an extra word in sight, but with so much heart and soul it almost hurts to read some of the passages.
Books and reading have a prominent place in both of Whitehead’s Pulitzer books. Cora takes to reading and learning; one of her favorite things to read are almanacs, no matter if they’re from the past. She’s starving for information, for worlds and events she knows little about and almanacs, with their wide variety of facts are perfect for her. One of the more poignant moments is when her suitor, Royal, brings her an almanac from the current year. Priceless.
There are so many terrible incidents in this book, as you can imagine, but there are plenty of moments of goodness, too. It’s not an easy read but it’s a satisfying one. Black History Month begins tomorrow. Why not seek out a book by a Black author and see where it leads?
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