Planet Books

Blog

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD BY COLSON WHITEHEAD

PUBLISHED BY DOUBLEDAY BOOKS
REVIEW BY DAVID COHEN

“If you can keep it, it is yours.” That sums up everything about Colson Whitehead’s fifth novel, a brutal and brilliant account of a young slave named Cora. “Your property, slave or continent: the American imperative.”

Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry, was stolen from Africa in the eighteenth century and sold and re-sold in the New World. Her daughter Mabel escaped from a hellish cotton plantation in Georgia and was never caught. In 1812, Cora also makes a bid for freedom: will she survive?

This novel is unsparing about the horrors of the Antebellum South. Just before Cora runs, another runaway is caught and brought back. His genitals are cut off and sewn in his mouth before he is barbecued in front of whites who drink lemonade.

Money powers this extraordinarily barbarous system: cheap labour is needed to pick cotton. “The cotton gin meant bigger cotton yields and the iron horseshoes for the horses tugging the wagons with iron rims and parts that took it to market. More slaves and the iron to hold them.”

Cora runs, and is safe and free in South Carolina. But it’s only page 73, and the next chapter introduces a fearsome slave catcher named Ridgeway – and you know he and Cora are destined to meet.

It’s beautifully written, with fine character studies. But this novel is not for the squeamish. But it needs to be read. Here is the reason for why the USA is like it is.

Find this novel in store at Planet Books. Ask the friendly staff for guidance too, and they’ll be more than happy to order you in a copy if it’s already sold out.