Thursday, July 5, 2018

Review: Underground Railroad (Whitehead)

This week, I am going to visit my sister in Farmington, Connecticut. Farmington was once known as the "Grand Central Station" of the Underground Railroad, and there are still three Underground Railroad homes still standing (and surprisingly well-preserved!) in Farmington. Though we are not allowed to go inside the homes, I'm planning to take my boys to see these houses since their American history education is sorely lacking in an international school system. Both are middle schoolers now, but neither one really knows much about the Underground Railroad and the extreme danger the slaves and Railroad families faced on a daily basis.

I realize that my review of this book does not jive with the high praise I've seen for it pretty much everywhere. If you decide to comment, please be kind. My honest opinion is the only one I have, and I'm sure I'm not the only person who isn't 100% ga-ga over this title.
This week, I am going to visit my sister in Farmington, Connecticut. Farmington was once known as the...
AUTHOR: Colson Whitehead
SERIES: none
PUBLISHER: Doubleday
PUBLICATION DATE: August 2, 2016
ISBN: 9780385542364
PAGES: 306
SOURCE: Brooklyn Public Library OverDrive
GENRE: historical fiction
SETTING: multiple southern US states, 1860s
GIVE IT TO: HS, adults
SUMMARY: Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Cora lives an incredibly cruel and abusive life on the plantation, and she escapes with a slave named Caesar, who knows about a stop on the Underground Railroad.

REVIEW: I have mixed feelings about this one, and that might be because of all the hype. I rarely do well with books that have received a lot of attention (see my review for The Fault in Our Stars), and I think if I had read Underground Railroad before all the hype, I would have liked it so much better. It's my high expectations that kill me.

If you are sensitive to reading about rape, abuse, and rotting corpses, you should know that this is an emotionally-difficult read. Many scenes are heartbreakingly brutal, as they likely would be considering southerners thought buying and enslaving other people was a good and proper thing to do. I appreciate Cora's toughness and feel for her need for this toughness. She could never survive without it.

I really liked both male love interests, Caesar and Royal. I also liked that Cora isn't at all ready for love interests and that in both cases, she takes too long to allow herself to love them.

I was confused and fascinated by Homer, a 10-year old former slave who wears a suit and top hat and travels with Ridgeway, a slave catcher. The juxtaposition of his character--simultaneously a servant, a child, a companion, and an accomplice--was incredibly complex. Maybe Colson Whitehead will oblige us with a book about Homer's story? What an interesting character.

I loved finally reading Mabel's (Cora's mother) story and finding out what happened to her after she escaped the plantation. We don't find out what happened to her until near the end, but Mabel's story is built up throughout the book. As an escaped slave who was never caught, Mabel is legendary in her area of Georgia and among slave catchers like Ridgeway. Mabel is the reason Ridgeway is so hell-bent on capturing Cora.

So what didn't I like? Well, for starters, I really didn't like how the Underground Railroad was an actual underground train in this book. Why did the author change history in that way? I worry that my international students might read this book and think that was the reality. I did not like that at all. I think the real Underground Railroad was much more perilous than an actual train that picks you up, so I really do not understand why the author made this choice in dramatic license.

Second, I didn't like the medical dystopia alluded to in the South Carolina section of the story. Again, why did this have to be the case? Isn't real history interesting enough without throwing in some nefarious, secret medical activities? I had heard about this dystopian section before I read the book. Initially, I thought it would be a cool twist, but I was disappointed that it isn't fully-explored. If that's going to be the situation in South Carolina (Charleston?), then the author should have really gone for it.

Last, I'm surprised that this book was only 306 pages. I read it on my Kindle, with page numbers turned off. It took me so long to read it, I expected it to be at least 400 pages. I skimmed some parts, especially in the last 50 pages or so.

THEMES: slavery, survival, Underground Railroad

THE BOTTOM LINE: Overall, it was pretty good and interesting. I think it would have liked it much better if I hadn't heard so much gushing over it. It's good, but I'm not over-the-moon for it.

STATUS IN MY LIBRARY: We don't have it. I'm not opposed to getting it, but considering my school is in China, I would encourage them to research the actual Underground Railroad. I would also probably just tell students checking it out that the Underground Railroad wasn't actually a railroad with a train and train tracks. And that "underground" means secret, not literally underground. I would hate for them to learn this fascinating piece of American history incorrectly.

READALIKES:


RATING BREAKDOWN:
  • Overall: 3/5
  • Creativity: 4/5
  • Characters: 4/5
  • Engrossing: 3/5
  • Writing: 4/5
  • Appeal to teens: 3/5
  • Appropriate length to tell the story: 3/5

CONTENT:
  • Language: mild; ni**er is used gratuitously, as is accurate for that time period
  • Sexuality: medium; rape, unwanted touching, consensual intercourse (nothing described in detail)
  • Violence: high; beatings, murder, hangings, rotting corpses, rape, gun violence
  • Drugs/Alcohol: mild; some adults described as drunk

2 comments:

  1. Totally agree with your review, I had the same reaction about how he made the railroad an actual railroad. Maybe it's because I am a non American who has lived outisde my own country and worked with international students that we have a different perspective.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad to hear your thoughts! Why change history when the real thing is so much more interesting than what is made up? Wouldn't being on an actual train be safer than running from one house to another in the middle of the night?

      Delete

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