The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad

As part of a lovely leaving present from my former Institute for Government colleagues in the summer I was given this year’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

It was a very good choice for me as I was fascinated in learning about the underground railroad when I lived in Buffalo in 1999, as Buffalo sits right on the border and had a key role to play in getting fugitive former slaves across the river and into Canada (see also my blog on The Last Runaway). When I first heard the term I was confused to discover that this wasn’t actually an underground train system, but the term given to the network of people across America willing to risk their lives to help former slaves escape from their ‘owners’ and their unbelieveably awful ‘living’, or more accurately ‘dying’, conditions to freedom.

This novel charts the story of Cora, who, like her mother before her, sets off to try and find her freedom in the north or in Canada. She and her fellow travellers are helped initially by a local bookshop owner who starts them off on the railroad. In this book the railroad is imagined as an actual underground system of tunnels, rickety trains, stations and guards.

Along this journey various appalling things happen to Cora, as she witnesses medical experimentation on fellow African-Americans, lynchings as weekly entertainment in one small town, and buildings full of African-Americans living freely set alight. This book does not flinch, and nor should it, from telling this story as it was, un sugar-coated, and this is reflected in the way the book ends.

It is a book absolutely worthy of the Pulitzer and it is very difficult indeed to read the graphic reality of plantation life and death and lynchings. There were points I just had to put the book down, look into the distance and pause before continuing, particularly the scene where a captured escapee is burned alive as entertainment for an all white plantation tea party as other slaves are forced to look on.

I would highly recommend this book. In the era of Trump and confederate flag waving it should be required reading for all American teenagers.