An Oprah book, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
This novel centers on our heroine–Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Whitehead doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrific (but accurate) life of slaves, and Cora’s lot is especially bad. Abandoned by her mother at a young age, she is alienated by her fellow slaves and has to fight especially hard for survival in an already brutal situation on the plantation. One day, a handsome young slave named Caesar approaches Cora and asks her to run away with him. At first, Cora laughs it off–like most slaves, she has had it literally beaten into her that escape is not an option–but after witnessing a final horrific event take place on the plantation, it becomes the straw that breaks the camels back. After talking to Caesar about the underground railroad, Cora decides to take control of her fate, no matter what the cost. Ultimately, the risk of death becomes more bearable than continuing to live as a slave.
After building up Cora’s character and setting the scene of her prison (the plantation), the rest of the novel unfolds to reveal the perilous and terrifying journey Cora undertakes during her desperate search for freedom. Cora will endure even more disturbing and unimaginable experiences as she travels the underground railroad in desperate search of freedom. She goes to unexpected places, meets unanticipated people, and ultimately makes life-changing decisions in the pursuit of personal freedom. Although the novel brilliantly pulls back the covers to view the gory, gruesome details of the antebellum South, making especially poignant commentary on the societal construct of racism, at the heart of this novel is the continuous question–what is the true cost of freedom, and is it worth the cost? How much of herself must Cora lose, and is it worth what she gains? Whitehead unflinchingly examines the moral relativism of self-preservation and asks the tough questions–in Cora’s case, it’s how far is she willing to lose herself to escape her prison? Do those choices really make her any better than her captors? What is more important–being right, or being free?
I see a lot of criticism on the choices Whitehead makes in terms of character development, point of view, and writing style in this novel. I think we must ask ourselves if some of the choices were done for specific reasons. Let’s start with point of view. Many readers ask, why is the story not told in the first person from Cora’s perspective? True, it would have made the story even more poignant, but what statement does Whitehead make by choosing not to go there? Maybe this is a commentary on how even her story isn’t her own; how the narratives of Black folks are often skewed, distorted, and hijacked by others to fit a larger narrative. Maybe Whitehead is underscoring that as a slave, Cora is denied even the right to tell her own story on her own terms–like many Black Americas who are told that “racism isn’t real,” and their experiences are invalid by their white peers. What about the distance Whitehead keeps from developing his characters? Perhaps this is a mechanism for turning these characters into a more representative perspective of slaves as a whole rather than drilling down into an individual’s experience. We can’t say for sure, but I think if you focus rather on whether or not you like something and start asking why the author does things a certain way, it can be a much more productive experience. So don’t believe the negative hype. The story, like all stories, is what you make of it, and what you bring to it.