The Underground Railroad

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Cora can run but can she hide?

Ridgeway, The Slave Catcher. There was a man to be feared.

Infamous, cunning and brutal – no runaway from the Randall Plantation has ever escaped him. No runaway except Cora’s mother.

So when recently arrived Caesar plots of escape, there’s only one slave he’s set on bringing as his lucky charm.

But Ridgeway is a brooding man. Spurred on by hatred for Mabel, he will track her daughter and her companions to the very edges of the new world.

Unless, of course, they can find some way to evade him…

Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction, The Underground Railroad is the sixth novel of American writer Colson Whitehead.

Born in New York in 1969, Whitehead grew up in Manhattan before graduating from Harvard.

His first work, The Intuitionist, was published in 1999 and focuses on the topic of racial integration. John Henry Days, his second novel, was a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Along with his novels, Whitehead also has to his name two non-fiction books, four essays and a short story.

The Underground Railroad, is his most recent publication and, arguably, already his most successful.

The novel’s chapters alternate between the main story (each named after a different American territory) and character backgrounds, each more revealing than the last.

The story itself draws inspiration from the sprawling network of secret routes and safe houses used by African-American slaves to escape into free states – like Massachusetts and Indiana – and across the board to Canada, during the early-to-mid 19th century.

The term “Underground Railroad” also applies to the multitude of abolitionists, both black and white, free and enslaved, who risked everything to aid the fugitives in their escape.

Such people, of all creeds and varying circumstance, are represented throughout the text – from the reluctant but kind-hearted Martin to philosophical philanthropist Valentine.

I should warn the reader, at this stage, this is a very real novel and as a result, there are times when passages are graphic and some characters, good and bad, meet some sticky endings.

Personally, I feel this is a credit to Whitehead who doesn’t attempt to romanticise a brutal historical period, whilst never over-embellishing nor glorifying the violence.

However, I can appreciate that this is not a style of novel to every reader’s tastes, so consider yourself warned.

The realism spreads to every part of the novel and is personified wonderfully through the main character, Cora.

Cora is not what most readers would consider a “touchy, feely” character. In fact, expressing emotions and sensitivity is an area she often struggles with, particularly early on in her journey.

In many other ways she is also not a traditional fictional heroine, prone to bitterness, jealousy and selfishness.

However, the shrewd reader will likely come to realise she wears these traits as armour and, despite her best efforts, I came to love her for her strength, wit and immense loyalty.

Ridgeway, of course, fulfils the main “villain” role in the novel. But neither is he a traditional villain.

His relationship with 10-year-old Homer, who had been Ridgeways’ slave for all of 14 hours before he freed him, is complex and mutually reliant.

Indeed Ridgeways’ motive for chasing Cora itself appears to have more to do with his hatred of Mabel’s success than the colour of Cora’s skin.

Overall, a brutal and blindingly good novel, full of suspense and unsuspecting twists and totally worthy of such acclaim and praise. It is a true representation of humanity from innocent to ugly and just about every shade in-between.

Published by Little, Brown Book Group in hardcover in the UK, The Underground Railroad retails at £14.99 and in paperback, published by Fleet, from £7.99.

Published in the US by Penguin Random House the hardcover retails at $26.95 and the paperback large print at $27.00.

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