It’s possible that you’ve been hiding from the book world for the past year and haven’t heard about The Underground Railway. It’s been nominated all over the place and won the Pulitzer Prize and Arthur C. Clarke award.

Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.

The actual underground railway of history was a network of abolitionists and freeman, providing sanctuary and transit to slaves on the run, delivering them to the relative safety of the free north. In Colson Whitehead’s novel, the railroad takes on physical form; a steam train running under the earth, the stations hidden under the houses of the network’s operatives.

I do think it’s important to educate yourself on the awfulness of the wholesale slavery of the African people. This book is set after the international slave trade ended but it was clear the plantation owners weren’t going to let that stop them. They would just have to start breeding. If this is the first book you’ve read on the subject (and you didn’t watch 12 Years a Slave) expect it to be eye-opening and harrowing.

Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.

Life on the Randall plantation was never easy, with rape and floggings part of everyday life. But when the property (which you will soon learn includes people) is left in the hands of the remaining, cruel brother, Cora knows her days are numbered. She’s been singled out. Years ago, her mother ran away and never came back, maybe she found the underground railway and is living a life of freedom. Maybe Cora can too.

In a way, the pages are tinged with hope for Cora. She escapes, although her journey is never easy. Whenever she believes she is safe, there is always something round the corner. She experiences paid work, learns to read, but whatever freedom she gains, she remains a prisoner.

The weak link – she liked the ring of it. To seek the imperfection in the chain that keeps you in bondage. Taken individually, the link was not much. But in concert with its fellows, a mighty iron that subjugated millions despite its weakness.

As Cora moves between states, the narrative is broken up by sections from other character’s perspectives. Usually of those whose paths have crossed Cora’s and met their fate. I certainly was not expecting Cora’s mother’s story to be what it was.

My only gripe about it was the fact I was left not really knowing what was history and what was made up. Colson condenses many aspects of the horror of the antebellum south into Cora’s journey. The depiction of eugenics and sterilisation was definitely something that happened, the banning of black people from an entire state, I’m not so sure, although this section has similarities to events in Nazi Germany, so sadly I would not be surprised. I mean it shouldn’t matter, but I like learning things from my reading so my flow was interrupted a lot by wanting to look things up.

Each one a state of possibility, with its own customs and way of doing things. Moving through you’ll see the breadth of the country before you reach your final stop.

That quote pretty much sums up what Colson is doing, with each state Cora passes through showing how things could have gone. Each state holding a truth about how white Americans perceived black people.

If you’re picking it up because of the Arthur C. Clarke award, don’t expect the steampunk vibe I saw one broadsheet said it had. It’s magical realism I suppose, maybe alternate history. However I think what it does contribute to science fiction is the context of many a dystopian system. We usually read sanitised versions but this is reminder that what may seem far-fetched is often based on our terrible histories.

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Book Source: Purchased