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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Underground Railroad: A Novel

I had the distinct honor of having Colson Whitehead autograph his new novel for me at Book Expo this year. I almost died with excitement. I have loved his previous books, all of which were read before this blog. This one, though, I knew would be big. The Underground Railroad may be August's biggest release.

Cora was born a slave, and will remain so for all of her days. Her mother, Mabel, is the only known slave in her parts to have escaped and lived to tell the tale; she evaded the South's most notorious slave catcher, Ridgeway, and was never heard from again. Cora is angry at her mother for abandoning her, and when given the opportunity to escape herself, grabbed it and ran. She becomes a part of the Underground Railroad, making her way through South Carolina, North Carolina, and beyond -- with Ridgeway himself on her tail. The experiences that follow Cora to freedom are numerous and varried -- they are harrowing, gripping, and awesome in the most literal sense of the word.

The only thing that I can say that would make any sense regarding this book is, holy mother of pearl. I was completely, 100% entrance from beginning to end. I had a difficult time putting this down, and I found that when I did, my only focus was on getting back to this book as soon as humanly possible. I have been a Colson Whitehead plan for some time, and I believe, although I would have to go back and check, I have read all of his books. I was super excited to pick up this book at Book Expo this year, and to have him autograph it was such a high point in my book blogging career. To have it to be genuinely one of the best books I've read this year takes the cake.

Let it be known, in truth, that more than a handful of times this book was incredibly difficult to read. Oh sure, it's heartbreaking and hard and heartbreaking again, but truthfully it is difficult to read if you or someone who cares even the slightest bit about humanity. At times I wondered if I could keep pushing through, because the truth of the brutality of how we is a country treated slaves, not just in our kidnapping and selling, but in the day to day utility of their lives, was incredibly difficult to face. I have heard others say again and again how they don't feel that they are responsible for the past because their relatives didn't own slaves, but when it comes down to it, we are all responsible for the collective history of our country. This was a difficult read at times, and I had to remind myself that reading this, and facing the reality of what our country did to an entire group of people, was not just important but mandatory in order to be a functioning human being in this society. While I could put this book down if I wanted to, hundreds of thousands of people could not step away from the violence of their everyday lives. I owed it to them, even if it was only in narrative form, to face up to the brutality our country's history.

Whitehead crafts a beautiful and searing narrative that tells the story of Cora and the life she fought so hard to live in freedom. I rooted for her, I cried for her, and my heart leapt with joy at even the slightest sign that she could potentially be safe. While Whitehead paints a fantastical metaphorical picture of the underground railroad that I never could have imagined previously, and this is led me to imagine and redefine the very thing that I feel my education skipped over with just a cursory glance. I can't get over the magnetism of the story and the narrative as well as the characters that way had was able to create. He is in my opinion one of the greatest writers of our generation, and I will always look forward to his next book. However, this one will always stand out as his masterpiece in my eyes.

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