Why you need to read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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Title: The Underground Railroad
Author: Colson Whitehead
My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Historical Fiction
Audiobook note: Bahni Turpin does a fantastic job narrating. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to her mastery of different accents and character voices. As you’ll see below, I think listening on audiobook really helped me finish this story.
Is it worth reading? Yes, yes, yes. The Underground Railroad is not a “comfortable” read by any means, but it’s an important one. Perhaps now, more than ever, we need to listen to voices speaking out about racial tensions in our country. It may be written about the past, but The Underground Railroad is more timely than ever.

 

>>SPOILER FREE REVIEW<<

It’s taken me some time to chew over what to say in a review of The Underground Railroad. Namely, how do you review a book about horrors that were not committed toward your ancestors? Horrors that your ancestors, in fact, might have committed?

Approaching this book, I wanted to assume a posture of listening and learning, attempting (though brokenly) to grow in my understanding.

In that regard, The Underground Railroad did not disappoint.

As I listened to the audiobook, all I could think was: “This is what reading is all about. This is so important for me to hear.”

The atrocities committed against slaves and blacks in America are easy to forget when we relegate their stories to textbooks and history classes. For me, The Underground Railroad was a powerful reminder of the importance (and power) of narrative in helping us understand not only history, but the experiences of another human being.

And this is what I love about books. I will never understand what it’s like to be a black slave in pre-Civil War America. Or even to be a black person in modern America. But I can begin to listen, learn, and grow through hearing their stories.

Another powerful message from The Underground Railroad is that it’s incredibly easy to celebrate all the good aspects of our country while completely forgetting the horror, evil, and despicable actions of Americans who killed, plundered, and destroyed the lives of Native Americans and blacks.

We cannot forget that much (if not most) of our country was built on the backs of slaves and the oppressed. We cannot sanitize history to ease our consciences. Erasing the horror only makes us blind to the world we’ve created — the world we live in today.

Choosing to intentionally avoid stories like The Underground Railroad is choosing to live asleep.

It’s choosing to willfully ignore — or even worse, willfully deny — the realities of our country’s origins, and the roots of so many racial tensions today. You cannot torture, murder, and dehumanize an entire people group for over two hundred years and then expect all the remnants of that torture to be gone within a few generations.

I know all of these things have been said before, by people much smarter, wiser, and more attuned to the nuances of racial tension than I am. But this is why I think The Underground Railroad is an incredibly important read.

One thing is abundantly clear to me after reading this story: I have not read nearly enough African American literature. Shame on me.

My only minor critique: From a purely personal standpoint, The Underground Railroad was not the most engaging book I’ve ever picked up. If I hadn’t been listening to it on audiobook, I think it would have been easy to put it down and not pick it back up. I think the reason isn’t the content, which was powerful, thought provoking, and highly relevant.

I think the problem for me was more in the style. I wish some of the portions had been in first person, or had delved deeper into the character’s psyche. The characters felt a bit flat at times, and the setting wasn’t fleshed out enough that I could visualize everything Cora and the other characters were experiencing.

The most interesting plot device of the story — the underground railroad as an actual railroad — doesn’t feel fully developed. I was left wanting something a little … more.

Whitehead’s writing felt a bit … clinical, for lack of a better word. The story was powerful. The plot was interesting. But the way it was written just wasn’t my favorite.

So that’s my struggle. On the one hand, you have this incredibly moving story that shines a bright light on the attitudes, atrocities, and belief systems of the slavery-era South.

But on the other hand, you have story that stalled, dragged on, and lost my interest at times.

At the end of the day, not every important story is going to have the readability that suits our absolute particular preferences, and that’s ok.

Should you still read it? Absolutely. But maybe check out the audiobook.

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