Ambitious But Flawed.
A reminder: I almost never give five stars and I almost never give a plot summary (which is usually already easily available).
Whitehead has two grand concepts, which he does weave in, fairly well. 1) The underground railroad is indeed a physical railroad underground. 2) the states in the 1800s evolved differently that the real U.S. In both respects this makes the novel a speculative fiction/alternative history and a genre that I like. I have long railed against the general prejudice that the establishment has for science fiction and fantasy and cross genre books like this help blur the lines.
My main complaint is given that Whitehead is willing to go down this path he ultimately doesn’t bring a whole lot of new thinking to the narrative of slavery in the U.S. or to the concept in general. He ultimately fell back on some tropes, which are fine, but not as interesting as I was expecting. I am, frankly, surprised it won a Pulitzer, other than the topic remains an important one, especially in today’s America. Don’t get me wrong, Whitehead is a good writer, but this particular book probably is the right topic at the right time that is “well written” but not “great.”
I am always leery of over use of flashbacks. Whitehead does not exactly use flashbacks, but he does rewind/sub-stories of side characters that I found less interesting than they could be and ultimately detracted from the main story of Cora. It would have been more powerful if he had stayed with Cora. I believe in some ways this is an homage to Beloved, which is a great book that I feel covers the subject matter in a more powerful method. Morrison, in Beloved, uses a bit of the same technique, but executes more powerfully and it feels more tied into the grand scheme.
One example of this is Cora’s mother figures behind the scenes as an important figure. The slave owner and slave hunter both carry a grudge against her for escaping and never being caught. Whitehead erroneously thinks we need to know what happened to her and does a short chapter on her story. This actually weakens the narrative by not letting us speculate on what happened and simply focusing on the damage and ripple effect. We assume there is a bit more to the story and I even guessed as to what happened (I won’t spoil it), but telling me did not enhance the tale.
There is a certain distance in the Cora POV that I felt. I know it is hard to have the reader really feel the mental anguish and pain, but at times I felt it was a bit too distant.
I understand the arc of Cora constantly getting crushed, over and over (and over), and still fighting, but it is an old arc. I didn’t feel Whitehead brought anything fundamentally new to this.
All of the above said, it is well worth the read. I would have liked to have seen more on the modified southern states and I would have liked to see a deeper exploration of something that was touched on in William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner, concerning the only slave rebellion to have occurred. In a alternative history, with something as improbable (from an engineering feat) as an actual underground railroad, why not explore what it would have taken to have more of a rebellion.