The Underground Railroad tells the story of a slave who escapes a Southern plantation and makes her way North, facing a variety of tension-filled challenges, cultural observations, and threats from both well-meaning and ill-intentioned people.
I wanted to like this novel so much more than I did. But I got really hung up on the way the author distances the narrative from any sort of lived experience. Most every aspect is told, not shown. The most pivotal, dramatic moments—including the violent climax—exist through flashbacks after the reader already knows the outcome. And it’s not a dialogue-heavy flashback, in which one character explains his or her first-person experience, full of emotion and reflection. It’s more of a textbook description of the action. The only emotion comes from the horror of the action itself, not from any connection to the characters experiencing it.
And, okay. The railroad. I try hard not to read any other reviews (just the book-jacket-type summaries) before I start a book. So when Cora and Caesar climb down into a tunnel and end up on a subway platform… what? I had to ask someone. “Have I misunderstood this my whole life? It *is* a metaphor, right?”
The literal railroad underground throws this novel into a different category, at least for me. It’s no longer historical fiction. Something closer to fantasy fiction. And then I don’t know how much to believe from the rest of the story. That might not have bothered me so much if the novel was on a topic besides American slavery. But there are so many untold stories on this topic already—dramatic, emotional stories that need to be shared, even as fictionalized accounts—that I can’t find a place where this horrific fantasy version fits.
I can see why so many people liked this novel. Obviously, take it all with a grain of salt—although I have no idea how big a grain to recommend. And if you find you’re not engaging with the main character in the first few chapters, it’s okay to give it up, because that’s not going to get much better.
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