Latest Posts


  • Helena Kennedy (2)
  • Barbican (2)
  • The Photographers' Gallery (2)
  • The National Gallery (2)
  • Tate Modern (2)
  • NPG (2)
  • The Photographers Gallery (2)
  • Pre Raphaelites (1)
  • William Morris Gallery (1)
  • William Morris (1)
  • Archives

  • January 2020 (1)
  • September 2019 (1)
  • July 2019 (1)
  • January 2019 (1)
  • August 2018 (1)
  • May 2018 (1)
  • January 2018 (1)
  • December 2017 (1)
  • October 2017 (1)
  • September 2017 (1)
  • Articles by Sonali

    Book review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

    Hurtling along, 'the Underground Railroad' is a novel by African American writer Colson Whitehead. The underground railroad is a metaphor for a secret network involving safe houses carrying slaves from the South to the Free States. Whitehead takes this idea to another level here. His book features a subterranean tunnel, like the tube, through which people are taken to safety on a steam locomotive.

    Set in 1812 a young African American woman Cora is the central character. Cora is a slave on a Georgia cotton plantation. She was abandoned by her mother Mabel, who escaped when Cora was ten years old. Cora joins Caesar, a new arrival at the plantation in his plan to flee from captivity. They’re helped by Mr Fletcher, an abolitionist, who leads them to the Underground Railroad through a trapdoor.

    Cora’s journey maps out the varying political climate in the South: Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana. What stands out is the novel’s panoramic scope. We’re introduced to new characters along the way ‘the stationmasters, conductors and sympathizers’, each playing an integral role in her quest for freedom. Several of them have a chapter in the book. Their individual stories provide a different perspective on the history of slavery.

    We hear from Cora’s grandmother Ajarry. She was snatched from her home in Ouidah, on the West African coast. People were needed to tend to the cotton in America to supply a growing demand in Europe. Ajarry ends up at the Randall cotton plantation in Georgia. 

    Caesar’s story chimes with that of Solomon Northup. Caesar worked for a benevolent owner Mrs Garner. He lived like a free man, learning how to read, but was sold South when she died. Ridgeway, the slave catcher, is ruthless and determined to capture the runaways. Ridgeway believes in the American Imperative ‘It means taking what’s yours, your property whatever you deem it to be’.

    The story is propelled by a fast paced, suspenseful plot with a mystery angle as Cora travels North. It's as if Whitehead is in a hurry to get us to the end. His writing is matter of fact. It’s also evocative and powerful although his use of words is economical and terse. ‘Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early morning dream.’

    Whitehead's approach has been criticised for being clinical, unemotional even. In truth, we might well feel overwhelmed if he took a more sentimental approach. The story is often harrowing.

    As Cora departs from Georgia the station agent Lumbly says ‘Look outside as you speed through and you’ll see the true breadth of the country’. She can't see anything underground. In a nod to magical realism Whitehead highlights how African Americans were denied civil rights. They couldn’t experience the full scope of the nation.  

    But a sudden change of pace takes place South Carolina. This is the most sluggish chapter in the book detailing a new start for Cora. Her situation seems to improve. She is given shelter, food and regular medical examinations. But a sense of dread and anxiety begins to develop. Cora moves on.

    Overall, 'the Underground Railroad' is a riveting, engaging read, definitely a page turner. In an interview (with the Guardian)  Whitehead said he was apprehensive about writing a work of fiction based on subject matter of such gravity. Nevertheless, he felt compelled to retell this important story, a history which is often brushed over or being revised. He also felt a connection to the material, exploring his own African American heritage

    His research was based on first person accounts of slavery from the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s. In fact, the names of some of these antebellum African American writers and poets are actually mentioned here: Phillis Wheatley, Jupiter Hammon and Benjamin Banneker. Cora discovers these writers (to her astonishment) when she’s living in Indiana, in an enlightened community. Here she is able to access a library. Perhaps Whitehead is encouraging us to seek out their personal accounts as well.

    Despite a predictable ending 'the Underground Railroad' has many strengths: well defined characters, an easy to read, engrossing storyline revealing historical injustice, and a contemporary relevance in terms of attitudes that are perpetuated today.

    Comments (0)

    Add a Comment

    Allowed tags: <b><i><br>Add a new comment: