I really don’t even have words for this book. When I started the Pop Sugar Challenge at the beginning of the year and set out my TBR of what I was planning to read for each challenge, I was stumped on what to put down for the “read a book about a difficult topic” one because I don’t tend to find books difficult to read regardless of subject matter. Or at least, not the books I tend to read. And then I had a Twitter conversation and decided that it was imperative that I pick up The Underground Railroad immediately. And I had to put this book down multiple times a chapter because it is so… powerful and incredibly difficult to read. I knew almost immediately that I was going to need to write a book talk on this book because I have so many thoughts. Before we dive in the meat of this book, here’s a quick summary:
Cora is a slave and a stray. She was born into captivity, though her grandmother, Ajarry, was kidnapped from Benin (I think) in West Africa and forced to come to America. Ajarry was extremely well-regarded by the other slaves on the Randall Plantation. Unfortunately, Mabel’s mother was less well-liked and when she ran away without taking Cora when she was ten, Cora ultimately winds up an outcast.
Ceaser, a literate slave and recent arrival, one day asks Cora to run away with him–to the Underground Railroad. In this novel, the Underground Railroad is an actual railroad underground, which is fascinating. The book continues to follow Cora’s journey as she escapes.
If you don’t want to know more about the book than that, now would be a great time for you to leave. I will attempt to not be very spoiler-y from here on, but I make no promises.
Let’s Talk Writing Style
When I finished this book, I immediately sought out reviews of this book to help me begin to process this book. One of the most common complaints I observed was that people were frustrated by the narration style of this book. They wanted Cora’s chapters to be written in first person so they could really get into her head.
Britney and I are on the same page with this one, what?! I’m going to be honest with you. If this book had been written in first person I wouldn’t have made it. I barely got through this book with the distance the third person narration provides. If Whitehead had let me “see” any more of what Cora was feeling I would have been sobbing too hard to grasp anything about the novel. And, honestly, I don’t understand how you can dislike Cora to the point that you can’t sympathize with her. The things she goes through are so horrifying and she’s forced to make tough choices and take actions that she may not have selected if her circumstances were different.
I thought Whitehead did an incredible job. I have so many sticky notes in this copy of the library book that I’m tempted to go out and buy my own copy before I have to return it to transfer over my sticky notes!
Also, there are so many incredible lines that just really struck me.
Slavery is such an appalling blemish on American History.
This is not news, obviously, but so often we kind of white wash slavery or we talk about it after a slave has escaped to freedom in the North and we act like the north was an amazing place where everything was fine. Like, if a slave made it to the north, they were golden. Now, it’s arguable that I’ve just not read enough books about slavery, which is quite possibly true. I think the last book I read about slavery was… Gone with the Wind, which doesn’t really count. I love books about the Civil War, but those tend to be more focused on the war and less on the atrocities committed by slave owners.
This book does not shy away from the atrocities of slavery. Cora is beaten and sexually assaulted. Again, to me, I needed the book to be distanced from those acts because I was horrified enough and sympathetic/empathetic enough that having experienced Cora’s emotions in any closer manner would have been too difficult. But it doesn’t end with her experience on the Randall plantation.
Cora winds up in South Carolina, which seemed great! She went to the doctor twice and on the second time her doctor suggests she thinks about birth control. Birth control in the form of a hysterectomy. As in sterilization, which was forced upon black women with at least two children already and who were considered mentally or morally deficient. It was also presented in a highly encouraging manner because the white people of the South were extremely concerned with the fact that they were outnumbered by their black slaves. And if you didn’t know, North Carolina’s sterilization program lasted until 1974. 1974. Just let that sink in.
The book also discusses the fact that doctors pretended to treat former slaves for syphilis, but in fact, gave them sugar water. This is a real thing that happened. Honestly, you can thank black people for a lot of medical advances because white people genuinely believed they weren’t people and treated them in completely awful ways. Even when they were being helpful. For example, Dr. Stevens, when in medical school, participated in grave digging, where it was significantly easier to steal black bodies because no one cared when those bodies went missing. There’s a sentence that says, “In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal.” My heart hurts, y’all.
What Would You Have Done?
Growing up, I was convinced that I would have been someone who fought for the freedom of slaves. That no matter where I was from, I would have fought for freedom and equality. That if I was the daughter of a plantation owner, I would have taught slaves to read, that I would have tried to prevent overseers from being as awful as they were. That if I was in the position to help with the Underground Railroad that I would have done everything I could to help slaves escape. You can probably see how problematic some of those beliefs are and, in fact, Ceaser’s former owner taught him to read and promised that upon her death he and his parents would be set free. Of course, when she died, they were not set free. But perhaps more egregiously, while it was helpful to go against the law and teach a slave to read, I’m sure most (probably all) people would have preferred freedom to the ability to read.
Regardless, my belief that I would have helped, that I would have done everything I could no matter the personal risk were really challenged by reading about the reality of the risk in The Underground Railroad.
This was another place where I had to sit this book down and walk away. It was so rough to read about this. It was difficult to read about The Freedom Trail in North Carolina. Really just grappling with our history in a way that we really should have done in school is a difficult thing to do.
But what about the way that the Irish and other immigrants were abused by the system?
First of all, no. Sure, new immigrants were not treated super wonderfully, but they were free. They had a contract over their head, but they were paid a wage and were able to pay off that contract. Slaves were slaves. They were not paid. They were not given the opportunity to really free themselves. Did some manage to do so? Yes, absolutely, but they were the exception to the rule.
Regardless, this question is addressed in this book and I thought it was done in such a perfect way. Let me know your thoughts!
This book just genuinely tackles so many issues and internalized racism is one of them. I haven’t dealt with internalized racism, but have dealt with internalized misogyny. I think that was an aspect missing from this book in the sense that I didn’t see that cross-section of Cora’s identity as much as I think it could have been included. Let me know what you thought on this point as my perspective is not the same as a black woman’s experience with this book would have been. Along those lines, I’m including links here to a couple of the YouTube reviews I watched when I was trying to process this book. Bree Hill posted this review and she too felt that the book was a difficult read and has some really great things to say about the book. Similarly, Rincey Reads posted a review she fell more on the side of wishing Cora’s perspective was a little closer and less distant. I definitely think listening to #OwnVoices reviews is extremely important so I wanted to include these reviews.
I want to leave you in this section with this passage, “To see chains on another person and be glad they are not your own–such was the good fortune permitted by colored people, defined by how much worse it could be any moment. If your eyes met, both parties looked away.”
And I leave you with this piece of hope that I just saw on Ava DuVernay’s Twitter:
If you read this book, let me know what you thought. I would love to discuss this book with you. And if it wasn’t clear, I loved this book. I think everyone should read it.