91. The Underground Railroad by colson whitehead

Without a doubt one of the most powerful books I have ever read. I was loaned this recently with the warning that it was unsettling, in fact deeply disturbing, and I pass these words on to you – together with a strong ‘you must read this book’ recommendation.

It won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2017 and deservedly so. The author’s prose is calm, crafted and composed even during the most harrowing events in Cora’s life as a slave on a Georgia plantation and her escape via the Underground Railroad. The fictional aspect of the railroad as a tunnel does little to detract from the general brutality, while adding to the mythology of the real ‘underground’ network that helped escaped slaves flee north; and the novel contains delightful vignettes of the brave souls who formed the railroad, both black and white, which strike as holding more truth than fiction in them.

From the cover – ‘Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. All the slaves had a hellish existence, but Cora has it worse than most: an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is approaching womanhood, where it is clear that even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North’.

Cora herself shines steadily through the book, surviving loss, rape, abuse, abandonment, terror, incarceration, the bloody lot. The terrifying slave catcher, Ridgeway, relentlessly pursuing her. The Irish immigrant maid who betrays her. Her delight in a ‘soft’ bed, in fact the only bed she has ever slept upon. It’s a shattering narrative, bleakly exposing a truly dreadful part of American history – absolutely not Gone With the Wind.

The story of Cora’s desperate struggle for freedom will hold you spellbound, I hope, as it did me. It is really, really good on every level imaginable, and I’m definitely going to be looking for more of this authors work. Wish Mum could have read this, she would have loved it.