The Underground Railroad – by Colson Whitehead – independent book review – Historical Fiction (United States)

I’m of two minds with this book. I’m glad I read it but it didn’t seem like it was written by someone who won a Pulitzer Prize and many other awards. Awarded four stars on Goodreads.

railroadOn one hand, this is a remarkable account of slavery in the U.S. The book follows two slaves from Georgia who run away from their despicable master to find freedom in the North. Their experiences traveling the Underground Railroad, while on the run from slave catchers, is the essence of the story. Along the way, the reader learns about differences in the way black Americans were handled in different states in the South. And how even those whites who felt they held little or no prejudice viewed black people as something less than they were.

There are references to some of the insidious ways whites tried to control black populations, including sterilization programs. And other stories of white heroism where people risked death to hide and protect runaway slaves. And of course there is the expected brutality, rape, and murder that are such a big part of the story of slavery in this country. A rich, dark and powerful story.

Colson Whitehead

But I must also say I found the writing of the book flawed. There were passages where I felt the author was suddenly writing a non-fiction account, more like an academic paper, almost lecturing in tone. Yet these passages were supposed to be part of discussions by or thoughts from main characters. To me, it simply did not ring true to the characters. Instead, it felt like 19th century slaves suddenly had the wisdom and perspective of 21st century American hindsight.

There were also places where the flow of the book seemed a little clunky. A few chapters felt like they were in the wrong place. Others seemed like digression. To me, the book simply didn’t hold together well in its basic construction. I still recommend it, though, for its powerful subject matter.

More about the author, Colson Whitehead.

You may be interested in my review of another novel by Whitehead, The Nickel Boys

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