Review: The Underground Railroad

20 Books of Summer 2019: Book 2

I was blown away by Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which took the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. I went to Goodreads to log my five-star rating and was surprised to find it sitting at a solid four. It appears that the biggest factor in whether people liked this book is their response to Whitehead’s treatment of the Underground Railroad as a physical railroad with trains.

The Underground Railroad follows Cora’s escape north from a brutal plantation as she’s tracked by a slave catcher, Ridgeway. Because travel is swift and occurs by train between chapters, the focus of the book isn’t Cora’s flight, but her experience in different cities. One criticism by people who dislike this book is that a physical train undercuts the sacrifice and ingenuity of real people who smuggled slaves to freedom. When Cora steps on a train in South Carolina and pops up in North Carolina, it doesn’t match history, but this novel doesn’t claim to be historically accurate. There is no explicit time-travel and the setting remains in the 19th century, but Cora witnesses a range of dehumanizing treatments that reference the 1960s and present day. Though Cora’s travel is occasionally fast, it’s never easy or without loss. There are narrow escapes and nighttime chases; the consequences of her capture are made horrifyingly clear at regular intervals.

So the question is: Do you need your fiction to be historically accurate? From other reviews, there’s concern that this book spreads the misunderstanding that the Underground Railroad ran on train tracks, but since when is fiction graded on its ability to sub as a textbook? This complaint hardly seems fair when Whitehead is so clear that his trains never existed:

The train pulled into the. . .station. It was the most splendid locomotive yet, its shiny red paint returning the light even through the shroud of soot. The engineer was a jolly character with a booming voice, opening the door to the passenger car with no little ceremony. . . . There were seats enough for thirty, lavish and soft, and brass fixtures gleamed where the candlelight fell. The smell of fresh varnish made her feel like the inaugural passenger of a magical, maiden voyage. (262)

This kind of tech / magical realism reminds me of his elevators in The Intuitionist (another great book).

With the train to free up page space, Whitehead spends his time shaping each city that Cora visits. Historical anachronisms abound because this book isn’t about a particular injustice at a particular time. Cora witnesses lynchings, unethical medical experiments that clearly reference the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, and race laws from the Jim Crow era. Maybe it’s confusing to portray the Underground Railroad with rails, but a more damaging (and persistent) misconception is the idea that racism in America was/is limited to the old South. This book doesn’t portray the South as a brutal plantation and the North as an abolitionist-filled haven—it attempts to show an entire nation, comprised of good and bad people with a shared and difficult history.

One weakness of the book, though, is that it shows little of Cora’s internal life. There are a few moments that seem like something from a movie script—”cinematic” is often a compliment in my reviews, but here I mean it to say that some things seem to happen at a distance. There is so little interaction between Cora and the secondary characters that while you can imagine their actions, you don’t have much sense of their voices. Between each long chapter is a short one to further illuminate a side character. Since Cora travels alone, these characters are fleshed out after they’ve left the story. I’m not sure how I feel about character development via flashback, but it’s hard not to see it as emotionally manipulative. I don’t like moments when I’m more aware of the writer than the characters.

Overall: 4.8 (out of 5.0) I am so impressed by this twist on the Underground Railroad. It sounds wrong to say that I appreciate a new twist on history because history is important for its own sake, but the anachronisms are well-used because the brutality that Cora witnesses and experiences isn’t something that shut off like faucet on a particular date. This is a historical novel that isn’t stuck in history.

Previously on:

  1. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Up next: March by Geraldine Brooks

9 Comments on “Review: The Underground Railroad

  1. “Maybe it’s confusing to portray the Underground Railroad with rails, but a more damaging (and persistent) misconception is the idea that racism in America was/is limited to the old South.”

    Exactly.

  2. Interesting. I love reading historical fiction and the twist here is intriguing. To your question, I want historical accuracy if facts are relevant. Otherwise, if it’s been made clear that there is a sci-fi, alternate history or otherwise intentional shift from historical accuracy element … well that’s another story.

    To be more blunt, it I feel like the author just doesn’t understand the historical context or has the facts wrong then it is annoying.

    This book sounds like creative story telling, which seems to me to be the point of fiction.

    • Yes, I got the feeling that the author was going for “true” over “factual,” if that makes sense. Whitehead clearly understands history; if he didn’t, this book would feel slapdash and shallow.

  3. Interesting question! I think I’d respond differently depending on whether I knew the history in advance. If I did and could therefore see when the auhor was deviating, I might appreciate the skill (assuming it was skilfully done!) But if I was reading it because I don’t know the history – as would be the case here – then I would find it deeply confusing and off-putting…

    • This is skillfully done for sure, but I can see where it would be off-putting to someone unfamiliar with the history. I think that’s the main concern of the negative reviews—people worry that this part of history is too important to get wrong.

      One thing that helps, though, is that Cora isn’t an integral part of the main anachronisms. With the reference to the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, for example, she hears about “a syphilis program” at a nearby hospital. My first thought was Tuskegee, and I think that’s intentional, but this is a short scene that doesn’t take the reader out of the story if they don’t have the same frame of reference. Now, if Cora learned about this by working at the hospital, or by knowing people there, that would feel false/confusing because her character would not be in that position. It’s like how some bad historical novels have their main character meet (by miraculous coincidence) the most famous people of the era at their key moments.

      As is, it’s like Cora is moving through this space where terrible things are happening, things that did really happen, which makes the story about more than just her. I can’t think of another book quite like this one. It makes sense that it won the Pulitzer.

      • I’ll be completely honest and say I don’t even fully understand your comment. I see what you mean but I’ve never heard of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment so if I were to read a book that referenced it I’d have to hope the book was telling me what actually happened. That’s not really a criticism of this book – not every book needs to be aimed at the level of people who’re not already aware of the subject matter. It’s clearly worked for you and other people who get the references and can differentiate between the history and the invention. But it certainly wouldn’t work for me, and I expect the same would apply to many, many non-Americans and probably many Americans too, so I completely understand why it would be attracting both positive and negative reviews. At least now I understand why it’s been getting a mixed reception and which side I’d be likely to fall on, so thanks for the interesting review and discussion!

        • I don’t read much historical fiction because it bothers me that I often can’t tell what’s true and what isn’t. Sometimes I think I should shore up my knowledge with textbooks first, but with a TBR like mine it’s hard to prioritize “homework.” I think that’s why this type of historical fiction appeals to me: The physical train that seems more magical than technological sets the expectation that I can’t use this book to brush up on my names/dates/places—I can just read the story.

          This treatment of history definitely won’t work with every subject. Oh! I know what I should have said in my review now!—

          I’m in the U.S., so when we discussed the Civil Rights Act and current examples of inequality, it was always put against the background of slavery. However, this book puts slavery in the foreground and the later examples of inequality are in the background. So it’s like a reversal of the usual discussion. A big part of the book is that even when Cora is no longer a slave on a plantation, she’s still not “free” because she can’t be a full participant in the societies she visits. Little anachronisms here and there drive home the point that when slavery ends in the U.S., things didn’t suddenly become equal. And, best of all, this PSA is done smoothly without on-the-nose lectures that would be far, far worse than well-used anachronisms. 😀

          Is it too late to add a P.S. to my post, ha.

          • Ha! Do a second post! That’s interesting because I felt that was the message in Beloved too, and also that it wasn’t all down to white oppression – that the black people still carried the chains of slavery with them and had to find a way to let them go before they could win true equality. I also read a book a few years ago that was a kind of lit-crit of Huck Finn, where the author suggested that those interminable last few chapters, when Tom Sawyer refuses to let anyone tell Jim that emancipation has been declared, was Twain’s way of showing that slavery continued long after the slaves were legally free…

          • I might do a second post and bring in Beloved. When I read it in high school, I wrote my paper entirely from the teacher’s comments and SparkNotes. That long stream of consciousness in the second half seemed impenetrable at the time. After the summer challenge, I’ll block out some time to read it.

            Somehow, I’ve never read a single book by Mark Twain. I know him entirely from quotes and cultural references and seeing his portrait at the National Gallery. So many books for the TBR!

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