Up Late With The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Up Late With The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I’ve been a fan of Colson Whitehead since The Intuitionist. (And if you want a really smart zombie book, Zone One is brilliant.) But The Underground Railroad is, in my opinion, Whitehead’s best work to date. He takes the metaphor for the Underground Railroad and makes it real, which gives the book the flavor of magical realism. His writing is flawless and precise, and the story gripped me from the beginning, partially because I just loved Cora’s character so much. Cora is, above all, practical. At one point she thinks: “Poetry and prayer put ideas in people’s heads that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world.”

When we first  encounter Cora, we come to understand on a plantation, “Every dream was a dream of escape even when it didn’t look like it.” Her attempt to farm a small plot of land left by her mother shows us this, to a certain extent.  Even the small celebrations were a form of rebellion because it allowed a type of escape: “They could face the morning toil and the following mornings and the long days with their spirits replenished however meagerly, but a fond night to look back on and the next birthday feast to look forward to. By making a circle of themselves that separated the human spirits within from the degradation without.”

The writing precision as well as the fully original metaphors struck me again and again as I read. Seemingly simple sentences and ideas, when examined more closely, show the craft at work in Whitehead’s writing:

  • “Made the rounds of the slave villages in search of anything amiss, a smile or a book.”
  • The neck collar “gave her the posture of a beggar or a praying mantis.”
  • “From the trunk of their scheme, choices and decisions sprouted like branches and shoots.”
  • “The idea was like a hunk of wood, Caesar thought, requiring human craft and ingenuity to reveal the new shape within.”

The writing, while phenomenal, is backed with an authentically interesting story, with a character we care about from the beginning. This book (along with Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing) is in the running for my favorite book of the year so far. And I’m not alone, Oprah has chosen Underground Railroad for her bookclub. So if you want a page turner, or a great example of precise writing, or a talented author with many books to savor, check out Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. You can win a free copy at our fall conference in State College, PA on October 14 & 15.

urlPosted by Kate, VP Secondary, PCTELA

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Up Late With The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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