Book Review: ‘The Underground Railroad’ is underwhelming


Image: Photo provided by Flickr.

Colson Whitehead signs a copy of his book.

Rylee Kirk, Staff Writer

The Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the year is seemingly lacking luster.

Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” disregards the title of the book for most of the plot, as well as creating immense confusion with vast plot holes between chapters.

“The Underground Railroad” details a young slave named Cora and her adventurous escape from a plantation in Georgia. Cora utilizes the Underground Railroad during her escape. In the book, the underground railroad is an actual system of locomotives underneath the ground.

Cora spends more time off of the railways than on. After traveling one stop to South Carolina for several months, she takes the railroad to North Carolina and ends up in Tennessee and Indiana. However, Cora does not travel to Tennessee on the railroad. When she travels to Indiana, there is a minute mention of it.  There is more focus on Cora’s potential suitors than the railroad.

The chapter flow of Whitehead’s story is quite jumpy. One chapter finishes with Cora arriving in South Carolina, and the next jumps to a focus on a character absent from the preceding chapter. The reader often needs to get their bearings due to the drastic shift because some of these chapters are unnecessary.

There is one chapter on Ethel, the wife of an underground railroad conspirer. This chapter details Ethel’s childhood dream of “delivering savages to the light.” The plot of the novel gains little from the explanation behind Ethel’s life-long angst. Frequently, these chapters begin in lackluster ways.

The chapter entitled “Ridgeway” begins with the snooze-fest of a sentence: “Arnold Ridgeway’s father was a blacksmith.” These jumpy, pointless chapters and boring lead sentences hinder the quality of Whitehead’s novel.

Whitehead does craft some dimension to Cora’s character. Amongst a seemingly magical group of fake characters, Cora has some depth. At a young age Cora is stigmatized on the farm due to the behaviors and actions of her mother and grandmother. Cora fends for herself on the plantation amidst enormous alienation. The stigma she wore for so long shapes her throughout the story often showing her inner voice and thought process.

Cora also receives dimension through her previous traumas. Cora has bad flashbacks and associations, when reminded of the atrocities of the plantation. The haunting of her former life makes Cora seem real. Some of the written traumas are purely for shock value. However, Cora has tangible phantoms, some of which modern day readers unfortunately can connect with.

The novel seems to be a highly exaggerated account of an escaped slave. There are too many times when Cora gets lucky or has a good break, that it borders on sci-fi. The execution of the plot is poorly constructed.

The concept of the Underground Railroad being a railroad is phenomenal. However, Whitehead ignores what makes his book special. The plot lacks climax and ends as a story continuing on. The plot idea is worthy of a Pulitzer; however, the construction is not.