The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

This was a Palampur Book Club read

The Underground Railroad is the story of Cora, a slave born and brought up in an American Southern plantation and her numerous struggles and momentous decisions in life. The underground railroad is depicted as a literal underground railway system that crisscrosses all over America through underground tunnels. Obviously that was not how it worked at all, but as a metaphor it definitely simplifies things.

I certainly had mixed feelings about this book although most people liked it in a reserved kind of way. It was clear that the message that the author was trying to put across was about the innumerable atrocities committed on the African slaves by their white owners and the need to remember. When one reads about another human being being designated to the rank of an animal by those in power, it certainly raises the hair on your head because you know that with the current world situation it is happening once again, only to another set of people. And it is always very hard to make reparation in any way for the enormous wrongs that were perpetuated by our ancestors in the not very distant past. The history of America will forever be burdened by that phase that is black with the blood of the many many Africans who lost their lives to feed the economy of that nation. Because after all, it was all about economy at first –  getting cheap labour and maximum output to lower production costs and gain larger profit margins.

The underground railroad not only lists the atrocities committed by the plantation owners on their defenseless defendants but also the sly policies designed by those who professed to help the escaped slaves and believed in treating them as individuals worthy of rights and liberty. It was a classic statement on how hard it is to escape prejudice once it has been so deeply entrenched in the psyche of humans.

As for Cora, one felt almost battered and bruised by the constant tortures that she faces every single day of her life. And the fact that one had to realise that it would never end. Until she takes to the underground railroad to escape. There is then hope for her, or so it seems. But then one is introduced to the bounty hunters who would be released to look for such escaped convicts and retrieve them from the free states with as much fanfare as possible. When Cora and the famed bounty hunter sent to look for her (I forget his name) come face to face, they seem to develop a relationship of sorts. Oh, not romantic or anything, but much in the sense of a hunter and his formidable quarry. By the end of their association, he is almost as impressed by Cora as it was possible for a person with absolute power on his dependents to be.

My reservations of the book stemmed from the relentless tortures listed in almost clinical fashion in paragraph after paragraph. It became so overwhelming, that after a while it stopped registering. One would say that was the effect the author would have wanted to create – that of constant atrocities that were so relentless that they numbed the mind and snuffed out any spark that might have at one time flared in the hearts of those at the receiving end of the overseer’s whip.

The book was disturbing and so extremely difficult to categorize into good or bad. The writing style is simplistic and not really gripping. Would I recommend it to someone? No, I don’t think so. As an introduction to the history of America, I think ‘Roots’ by Alex Haley was much more complex, getting it message across without quite turning off the reader.


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