Book Review: The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

Book Review: The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I so wanted to like this book. I appreciate and respect it, but it left me cold.

The enslavement of African Americans in the United States and the horrific ways in which they were treated is one of the two most heinous sins (alongside our treatment of Native Americans) in our national past. I have never been able to fathom how people could treat others as less than human over such a minor difference as skin color. And the fact that these slave owners viewed themselves as good and kind and “Christian” is one of the most appalling and ludicrous things I’ve ever heard. The systematic oppression and abuse of any subset of humanity, whether they are set apart by gender or religion or sexuality or something as simple as a different pigmentation, is so opposed to the teachings of Jesus that I am baffled by how anyone who considers themselves to be one of His followers can possibly rationalize it.

“The only way to know how long you are lost in the darkness is to be saved from it.”

Going into Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning novel, I was hoping to see some new facet of this dark past, some deep and powerful truth that I as a Caucasian woman in the American South might have missed in my research of the topic. I wanted a revelation, which I understand is way too much pressure to put on any work of fiction, but I was unable to rein in this hope. What I got instead was a lecture housed in novel form. Yes, the slave-owning South was shown in all its horror, and the lives of slaves and those who sought to escape their bonds were presented in a way that balanced the stark and the descriptive. There were instances where the treatment of slaves was unspeakably brutal, as it truly was in our history. Whitehead also showed how even the whites who claimed to be more civilized and caring still saw African Americans as less, and incapable of making decisions for themselves even if they were no longer technically enslaved.

“Slavery is a sin when whites were put to the yoke, but not the African. All men are created equal, unless we decide you are not a man.”

My problems with this book was my inability to empathize with any of the characters. Did I have sympathy for them? Absolutely. However, none of the characters felt real enough to truly care for. Everything I learned about them was told to me instead of shown. This resulted in cardboard characters with rich histories but no true personalities of their own. I was also incredibly frustrated by the ending, or lack thereof. It felt like Whitehead simply got tired of writing and decided to stop.

“Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth.”

I’m glad I read The Underground Railroad, but I’m even more glad that it’s over and that I can move on. It’s beautifully written, but I couldn’t connect with it no matter how hard I tried. For me, it was like Lincoln in the Bardo in this regard. I felt that Octavia Butler’s Kindred presented this horrific time period in our history with so much more grace and depth. Those characters, from main protagonist to secondary characters to even the antagonists, felt so much more real to me, and evoked far stronger emotions. I truly cared about each on of them and was invested in the outcome. I think I’m in the minority on The Underground Railroad; I know plenty of readers who were blown away by it. But if you’re like me and find yourself disappointed, give Kindred a try instead.

You can order this book from: Amazon UK | Amazon US | Book Depository (Free shipping)

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