Critical Assessment

“In his dynamic new novel, Colson Whitehead takes the Underground Railroad—the loosely interlocking network of black and white activists who helped slaves escape to freedom in the decades before the Civil War—and turns it from a metaphor into an actual train that ferries fugitives northward.

“The result is a potent, almost hallucinatory novel that leaves the reader with a devastating understanding of the terrible human costs of slavery. It possesses the chilling, matter-of-fact power of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, with echoes of Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved,’ Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables’ and Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man,’ and with brush strokes borrowed from Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Jonathan Swift.”

Michiko Kakutani. “Review: ‘Underground Railroad’ Lays Bare Horrors of Slavery and Its Toxic Legacy,” The New York Times, August 2, 2016.

First Excerpt

“You would have thought Cora’s grandmother cursed, so many times was she sold and swapped and resold over the next few years. Her owners came to ruin with startling frequency. Her first master got swindled by a man who sold a device that cleaned cotton twice as fast as Whitney’s gin. The diagrams were convincing, but in the end Ajarry was another asset liquidated by order of the magistrate. She went for two hundred and eighteen dollars in a hasty exchange, a drop in price occasioned by the realities of the local market. Another owner expired from dropsy, whereupon his widow held an estate sale to fund a return to her native Europe, where it was clean. Ajarry spent three months as the property of a Welshman who eventually lost her, three other slaves, and two hogs in a game of whist. And so on.

“Her price fluctuated. When you are sold that many times, the world is teaching you to pay attention.”

9780385542364_p0_v2_s192x300

Second Excerpt

“She knew that the white man’s scientists peered beneath things to understand how they worked. The movement of the stars across the night, the cooperation of humors in the blood. The temperature requirements for a healthy cotton harvest. Ajarry made a science of her own black body and accumulated observations. Each thing had a value and as the value changed, everything else changed also. A broken calabash was worth less than one that held its water, a hook that kept its catfish more prized than one that relinquished its bait. In America the quirk was that people were things. Best to cut your losses on an old man who won’t survive a trip across the ocean. A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth. A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money. If you were a thing—a cart or a horse or a slave—your value determined your possibilities. She minded her place.”