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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

 

“She was surrounded by men and women who’d been born in Africa, or born in chains, who had freed themselves or escaped. Branded, beaten, raped. Now they were here. They were free and black and stewards of their own fate.”

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This sentence comes late in the novel The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Released in paperback this week, this book won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for the 47-year-old author.

Described by some as a work of magical realism The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, born into slavery, and her journey to freedom. But, it is very clear that there is really no escaping slavery. In America the past is so very present, even now, as most African Americans have slave ancestors.

The Underground Railroad is a novel that presents much of what one expects, descriptions of life on a cotton plantation, the cruelty of the white slave owners, the suffering of the slaves, but, also, much more that is unexpected as the story unfolds. There is reality here – and there is something more, at times so plausible you’ll wonder what is fact and what is fiction – the complete unlikeliness of some events seeming so very possible. The image of the Underground Railroad as being an actual thing is at once fantastical and a literary device returned to again and again as the story moves forward. A museum display about slavery is not as absurd as one might think, considering that Inuit were brought from the north to New York in 1896 for display.

This is a novel with a full cast of intriguing characters, apart from the slaves and the free men, and those who helped them. There are also the “resurrection men” and a fascinating scene with these grave digging body snatchers at work. And, there are the men who made their living capturing runaway slaves and returning them to their owners for reward – a profitable job.

Always at the centre of the novel is the slave Cora, and the story of her young life on a cotton plantation. We learn about Cora’s mother, Mabel, who ran for freedom leaving her daughter behind, and the story of Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry, who had been kidnapped in Africa. And, we follow Cora’s run, her own attempt at freedom.

Author Colson Whitehead grew up in affluence, in Manhattan. Educated at Harvard, he worked as a journalist and was a well-established author before the publication of The Underground Railroad. Though he knew nothing of his own ancestors, his research for this novel included reading books about slavery, including first hand accounts written in the 1930s by former slaves.

 

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