Sunday, April 16, 2017

African American Literature Annotation

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead


The Underground Railroad is, at its heart, a novel that shares with the reader the horrors of slavery -- but it never loses its hope. The story follows Cora, a slave on a Georgia plantation. Cora's grandmother and mother were on the same plantation but Cora is all alone. Her grandmother passed away and her mother ran away from the plantation. Most slaves that ran away were captured, but Cora's mother Mabel was the one slave that managed to escape and never get captured by slave catchers. Another young slave, Caesar, has a plan to escape the Georgia plantation and wants to take Cora with him because he knows she can do it. Another slave, Lovey, surprises them in a swamp and wants to join them, but she's captured during their first conflict on the run. The story continues to follow Cora and Caesar as they make it to South Carolina via a literal underground railroad, complete with tracks and actual trains. They think South Carolina is paradise, but suddenly find themselves in the middle of a medical experiment about syphilis and sterilization project. Cora is able to escape, but loses track of Caesar. Cora continues on to North Carolina and is forced to live in an attic. She's eventually discovered by a abhorrent slave catcher, Ridgeway. He intends to take Cora back to Georgia to be punished for her escape. On the way back, their party is attacked by slaves and Cora escapes her captor again. Eventually she makes it to Indiana and begins a relationship with a man named Royal, but Ridgeway is still on their trail. There's another recapture, another escape, and an eventual end to the story, but I won't spoil the ending for you.

Appeal Characteristics

  • Richly Detailed - Colson Whitehead definitely creates a very richly detailed reading experience. Sometimes, I felt like it was driving me crazy, but that's really only because I was desperate to know what was coming next. I didn't necessarily care about all the details when things got dramatic and tense. 
  • Tone: Dramatic, Disturbing, Thought-Provoking - This is not the book to recommend for someone who wants to escape reality. This is a very brutal read at times, from the story of Cora's rape, to burning a slave alive while white people watch with fine food and drinks, to Cora actually being a museum exhibit. It's appalling. The terrible reality is that you can't say that it's just a book, that it's just fiction. True, Cora isn't real, but slavery very much was and these atrocities actually did happen to people. 
  • Storyline: Unconventional - The underground railroad wasn't an actual train like it is in the book, but that's not the only unconventional part of the story. The storyline moves around in interesting ways. It's linear, but interrupted at times. For example, Whitehead will leave you on a cliffhanger about Cora and then introduce a chapter about the slave catcher. There are plenty of diversions from the path. Again, this kind of makes you crazy when you're dying to find out what happens to dear Cora, but Whitehead knows how that just builds the suspense and makes you want to read on. Well played!
  • Strong Female Character - Cora is the consummate survivor in this novel. Sometimes I wonder how she survives and makes it through her life but she does. It's really quite remarkable and inspiring. 
Read alikes 


All three read alikes have the same disturbing and dramatic tone and unconventional storyline. 

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