The Underground Railroad

Rating: .5
Author: Colson Whitehead
Genres: Historical Fiction, Re-imagined History
Pub Date: Aug. 2016 (read Apr. 2018)

This book is breaking my heart…. because I didn’t love it…. I didn’t even really like it.

I picked this for my April Challenge to read 3 award-winning books. This won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for fiction, so I had high hopes that I would enjoy this. It’s definitely a good book, I won’t debate that, but it’s just so unbelievably SLOW! It’s only 300 pages and it took me 2 and a half weeks to read. On average I read a book every 3 days, so this felt like the longest slog ever and I actually had to take a break in the middle to read my book club selection because I wasn’t going to finish this in time.

The Underground Railroad re-imagines the network of people and safehouses that helped black people to escape the south and slavery as an actual underground railroad. It’s an interesting concept, but personally I didn’t really think the railroad had any real impact on this story. Whitehead tells the story of Cora, a young slave in Georgia who after being beaten by her masters, decides to try and escape the cotton plantation where she’s lived her entire life. The plantation has a long and sorry history of slaves escaping the plantation, but they were always caught and returned to the plantation to be killed for trying to escape, except for Cora’s mother Mabel, who abandoned her when she was just a girl and was never re-captured.

Cora begins a journey through many states and is pursued by Ridgeway, a slave catcher who still can forget about Mabel, the one the got away, and is determined to catch Cora to right his past failings. She travels through several states and is witness to the kindness and hate of the people around her, sometimes catching a glimpse of like as a free-woman, and other times forced back into hiding as she continues towards her ultimate goal of escaping to the North.

This is an interesting story, as difficult as it sometimes was to read (content wise, which is sometimes disturbing). But I couldn’t get past the pace of the book and like I said, I thought the whole idea of the underground railroad fell flat. It serves to move our story around, but I didn’t actually find the concept that engaging. I would have liked to know more about the railroad and how it came to be – it was obviously built by slaves, like everything else in America at that time – but we don’t learn that much about it. I understand that this is part of the mystery, but I kind of wondered what the point was. Cora could have travelled between states hidden in the back of a cart and the story wouldn’t have really been any different.

There’s not very many high points in the story. The format was interesting, with Whitehead separating each chapter by a different state and separating the states with short chapters from the points of view of some of the minor characters. I had no idea what the point of the grave digger chapter was, but some of the other chapters were interesting. I was intrigued by Ridgeway’s character and found his and Cora’s relationship interesting.

Maybe I’m too dense for this book, but I just can’t get on board. I appreciate what Whitehead did with this book, but I’m not convinced it was worthy of all the awards. I wanted to love it, but it was just so slow and boring. It had some faster paced parts where I would finally get into the story, but then the chapter would end and everything would change up and be boring again. The story just had no momentum – a disappointing read.

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