If you have visited the Albion-Bolton branch recently, you might have seen the display of books on the FastLane, a new service that allows readers to borrow hot items for one week without waiting in the holds queue. This is where I discovered the acclaimed new novel by Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad. A significant departure from his previous bestseller, Zone One, which explores zombies in New York, Whitehead’s newest title is a slave narrative that takes readers on an emotional journey through the Southern United States as two slaves plot their escape from the horrors of life on a cotton plantation in Georgia.
This novel tells the story of Cora, a young slave who has been subjected to brutal treatment by plantation owners. Cora was abandoned at a young age by her mother who fled the plantation, and she decides to follow in her mother’s footsteps after witnessing a particularly gruesome beating of a fellow slave at the plantation. When Cora successfully plots her escape from the plantation alongside another slave, they have no idea what lies ahead as they flee on the Underground Railroad. Their escape from the plantation triggers a terrifying chase by slave hunters that sends Cora on a wildly dangerous journey through the South. As she travels through various “Free States”, she is witness to unthinkable atrocities against former slaves, which lead her to question the very existence of human freedom.
The shocking and brutal nature of Whitehead’s narrative sparks reflection on a number of recurring themes in the novel including racism, colonialism and feminism, both in a historical and contemporary context. Though fictional, this heavily researched work is deeply rooted in slave history and almost serves as a commentary on the evolution of the American consciousness. Given the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, this book is both a timely and necessary read. I highly recommend this novel to readers who enjoy American historical fiction.