book review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is a powerful book in that, though it is fictional, depicts horrific situations that many real slaves had to endure.  Whitehead’s story follows a slave named Cora from her life on a plantation, her mother’s abandonment, her decision to escape, and the people she encounters during her journey.

Whitehead portrayed many aspects of African American history through Cora’s journey.  In one instance, she saw white people depicting blacks, using their racist stereotypical beliefs as motivation.  In reality, this happened quite often in film, with white people dictating how blacks should look and behave on screen.  In another instance, she saw white people gathered to watch the hanging of a runaway slave as an afternoon amusement.  Historical documents show that this, too, happened.  In another instance, Cora learned about a hospital for blacks that were actually conducting experiments on them for syphilis (read “Bad Blood” about the Tuskegee experiments).  There were descriptions of how the KKK burned houses.  From what I know or have learned about slavery, the things that happened to Cora or that she saw actually did happen to slaves and blacks in the United States.

Not only were the depictions accurate, the characters were realistic.  What I mean by that is that none of them were perfect – they all had their flaws and they seemed like real people with their own personalities.  The author did a great job of revealing enough of their traits to tell the reader who they were.

I was enjoying this book (actually, enjoying is probably the wrong word because there were many gruesome things described, but I liked the writing style and the book was engaging) until I got to the bit where Cora ran away on a real underground railroad.  I had to do a double take when the author described a real railroad.  Huh?  I had always heard that the underground railroad was a metaphor for the network of people that housed runaway slaves.  I know that this book is fiction, but this part of it really annoyed me.  Mostly, I didn’t understand the reason for changing the metaphor into a real railroad.  Everything else in the book seemed historically accurate – sometimes the years may have been off, but the events themselves were accurate.

I would still recommend this book, but I hope that people will understand that it is fictional and won’t think that there was a real underground railroad that runaway slaves used.