The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

This book is going to be big. Selected for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, put on Barack Obama’s summer reading list, profiled in Time Magazine and The New Yorker, its  scheduled September release was brought forward to August just to meet anticipated demand.

Beyond the hype, The Underground Railroad has substance and if it isn’t on your book club list already, note it down now – male participants in particular will love you for it.

Now I thought I knew a bit about the history of slavery in America. I’ve read some books, visited the historic towns of Savannah and Charleston and ghostly plantations nearby and I’ve also seen my fair share of Hollywood movies. 12 Years a Slave came close, but I can tell you FOR SURE…Gone with the Wind has gone with the wind with the Underground Railway.

What I didn’t fully understand was the level of sustained, multi-faceted, gut-wrenching tension across the South that ultimately led to the Civil War. The suppressed slave population was growing in size and anger and the word comeuppance was not used lightly.

I understood the oppression, but I didn’t appreciate the context and how various states in the region were dealing with the “the coloured question” differently.  

I also didn’t know there was a semi-organised network of people operating to help transport slaves (well at least the ones with the courage to run) to safety further north. This network was referred to as The Underground Railroad.

In this book, Award winning US author; Colson Whitehead tells the fictionalised story of runaway slave Cora and turns the metaphorical Underground Railroad into a reality.

Born into slavery and abandoned by her family, Cora developed the kind of fearless resolve dreaded by slave owners at the time. She found a way to the underground railroad and risked it all for the chance of freedom. Her owner employed one of the South’s most notorious slave hunters to track her down like a dog and ordered a set of engraved gallows ready for her return. The book tells the story of Cora’s attempts to escape her hunter and the system she couldn’t outrun.

Brace yourself for horror and sadness, but enjoy the historical journey Cora takes across the South. Personally, I would have liked more accented language in the dialogue, but admit that not having to squint through pages of thick southern patois did help me move through it – not that I needed much help with that.  Another reason why this book will be so big.

And that is my 2 cents worth.