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.

April Reading Challenge

I am really late posting my April Reading Challenge, but I have been working on it!

March was probably my least successful reading challenge to date. I really liked The Thief, but I didn’t love either of the other books I read. I may have went too broad with the “read 3 fantasy books” idea, so I’ve decided to narrow it down a little more this month. My April Reading Challenge will be to:

Read 3 award-winning books

The three books I’ve chosen are:

  1. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  2. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Aliré Saenz
  3. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

My first book, The Underground Railroad, was published in 2016 and won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book award for fiction. It was also one of Oprah’s book club reads and it won the Goodreads choice awards in historical fiction. The Underground Railroad looks at slavery in the early 1800’s, prior to the civil war, and re-imagines the underground railroad as an actual underground railroad, instead of just the network of secret routes and safe houses that it was in reality. It tells the story of Cora, a young girl who tries to escape the cotton plantation in the south where she’s spent her entire life.

The second book I selected was Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. I like including young adult books to capture a wide variety of experiences and this one has won a litany of awards. It won the Lambda Literary Award and the Stonewall Book Award for LGBT fiction, the Pura Belpré Narrative medal for Latino fiction, and the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award honour and the Michael L. Printz Award honour. I don’t know a whole lot about the plot of this book, except that it focuses on the friendship that develops between two boys, Aristotle and Dante, and has LGBTQIA+ themes. I’ve heard a lot of good things about it from vloggers I follow, so I’m excited to read it!

The last book on my list is Brown Girl Dreaming, which I bought a copy of a while ago and have been meaning to get to. I have no excuse as this is a middle grade novel written in prose, so I’m expecting it to a pretty quick read. Brown Girl Dreaming won the John Newberry Medal, the National Book Award for Young Adult Literature, and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature. It tells the story of a young girl growing up in the Jim Crow era in South Carolina.

I will admit that I’ve been working on The Underground Railroad for the last week and that I haven’t gotten very far because it has a pretty slow start, but it is finally starting to pick up and I am optimistic.

I am going to have to do some serious reading to fit these all in (plus my book club’s selection) over the next 2 weeks because I am going on vacation towards the end of April to Vietnam for 3 weeks! You likely won’t hear a lot from me during this time, but I’m really looking forward to doing some travel and I’m sure I’ll knock out a book or two on the planes, trains, and beach.