The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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My book of 2017 so far. A bold claim considering we’ve still got five months of the year to go. Still, I find it hard to think I’ll pick up a contemporary novel as moving, original, and powerful between now and Christmas. And if Obama agrees with me, I must be right.

The Underground Railroad is the story of Cora, born a slave on a Georgian cotton plantation, who follows in the footsteps of her runaway mother. Alongside her accomplice Cesar, she escapes and begins her journey towards freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Now, for those unfamiliar with US history I feel like I have to make the point that the Underground Railroad was a metaphorical route of safe houses and passage where slaves were smuggled out of the South. But in Whitehead’s book, it is an actual, powerful, gleaming, mechanical railroad.

I don’t usually buy into magic realism, but the slight unreality serves to bring home how alien and appalling the reality was. Cora travels through various states, seeing the different forms of oppression and how people adapt and survive. It is her personal journey, but it is also a collective journey, a shared American history that shouldn’t be forgotten.

It is powerfully emotional, without dipping into sentimental cliche. It is unflinching in turning its gaze to uncomfortable truths, but not gratuitous. This difficult balancing act means Cora and her story will stay with me long after her journey passes out of sight.

Read: On Barack Obama’s personal recommendation.

 

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