The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead tells the story of Cora, a slave in a Georgia cotton plantation. Abandoned by her mother, Cora eventually decides to make a run for freedom with a fellow slave, Caesar. They escape to South Carolina by riding on a literal Underground Railroad, a network of tracks and tunnels under the ground, built and operated by former slaves and their sympathizers. Eventually they are hunted down by a ruthless slave catcher. Cora manages to escape and flees from one state to the next in search of freedom. The novel ends on an optimistic note in that it appears as if Cora is well on her way to finding the freedom she has long sought.
The novel begins on a strong note. We meet Cora as a young girl trying to survive in a brutal environment. We witness the horrors of slavery, and we see the impact of institutionalized oppression both on the oppressor and the oppressed. The descriptions are vivid and graphic and cause one to recoil in horror.
After Cora’s escape to South Carolina, however, the novel seems to lose focus. We are introduced to a host of new characters, which is understandable. But we are also given fairly extensive background on each of the characters, even the minor ones—their families, their upbringing, why they are the way they are, etc. etc. All of this tertiary information is problematic, redundant, and detracts from the main narrative. Why give us so much background information on a minor character, especially since such material slows the pace of the narrative and interrupts its progression?
None of the main characters are fully developed. They are portrayed in a detached, clinical manner, so we never become emotionally invested in any of them, not even in Cora. We should feel immersed in her experiences and see what she sees, hear what she hears, and feel what she feels. Instead, we observe her from a distance, which prevents us from forging a connection with her.
The absence of a cohesive structure in a narrative that jerked from one event to the next with little to no transitions coupled with a lackluster character portrayal made this a somewhat disappointing read. It is certainly not up to the level of previous Pulitzer Prize winners. But it is worth reading if, for no other reason, because of its depiction of the horrors and dehumanizing impact of slavery in its opening sections.
Recommended with reservations.