So I read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad in advance of the then-upcoming Barry Jenkins miniseries, because I figured that I definitely wanted to watch that, and that reading a book after watching a movie is never going to get you the same experience you’d get if you’d read the book first.
It’s perhaps lightly ironic, then, that I’ve only been watching the show slowly, because it’s faithful enough to the book that it seems a bit predictable. Oops. The good news for me is that my memory is terrible, and that by just waiting a little bit, I’m able to be surprised by events that I read about only a few months earlier.
The bad news for me is that my memory is terrible, and now I need to write up a booklog entry on a book I read some months ago. Welp.
So, the elevator pitch of the book is: What if the Underground Railroad were a literal railroad? But that’s not the premise of the book, exactly, it’s not what the book is about. Because, yes, there’s a somewhat magical railroad here, but it’s just a background fact, a throughline running through the book, but not something the book delves into deeply and explains or examines or whatever. Mostly, it’s used as a kind of transition, to take the protagonists from one would-be safe house to another in a series of episodes that each illuminate some essential truth of the Black experience in America.
The book is well-written, combining direct realism with a mythic fable-like tone. That sounds like it wouldn’t work, but Whitehead makes it work. And the episodic structure works well, too, allowing each new place to build in dread and terribleness at an appropriate pace.
If there’s a criticism, it’s that I don’t think this book comes across as unique in 2021 as it did in 2016—a lot of elements feel familiar from other things I’ve read or seen lately—but another way of phrasing that is arguably that the book has been influential and inspired other works, so. Either way, it’s an excellent book, and easily recommended.