Underground Railroad is not a book that needs any help or promotion from me. It was, after all, the Oprah pick for her Book Club. That fact alone probably sold more copies of the book that people I will ever meet in my entire life. Then, when we add to that fact that Oprah actually got the release date of said book moved up over a month-- that might tell you all you need to know. And, the truth is, I might be a little late to the party when it comes to posting something about the book, but that doesn't change the fact that I read it and I wanted to talk about it.
First of all, and perhaps the most talked about aspect of the book, the underground railroad of the title is a literal railroad that is underground in the book. Now, I've read various things that say, "Well, Whitehead makes everything except that one thing realistic" or "That's the only changed detail from the reality of times during slavery." Neither of those statements are true. There are several things that are not accurate historically or that are evocative of certain times which, while they are pivotal to African American history, did not occur in the timeline which Whitehead gives us.
For example, at one point, Cora (the main character) goes up to the roof on the 12th floor of a building in South Carolina. That's great except for the fact that in the 1840s or 50s where she is, there aren't any buildings that tall. Not in SC. Not anywhere. It was only in the late 1850s that the elevator that could make a tall building like that possible, was conceived, and it was over another 30 years before the first steel structures over 10 stories were built. Does this matter? Not really. Did it put me off at first? A little. I was truly concerned that Whitehead was guilty of sloppy historical research, at best. Still, the writing was so good, I kept reading.
I'm not sorry I did. There were other instances of historical manipulation-- some so subtle that only a historian would notice (like the skyscraper), some that are pretty blatant (like the underground railroad being a real railroad), and various degrees in between. I expected this would get on my nerves but I found that it didn't. Rather, this allowed me to enjoy the story but to also see it as a work of art that was making a statement without being pedantic.
Was this book fun? No. Was it easy? Sure, all the words were English and were of a nature I understood so in that, sure it was easy. But easy also connotes that there's a breezy nature in the reading of the material and that is not true in this case. I found my heart broken on at least two different occasions in this book and I'm not ashamed to say that I cried. So, easy? Not really, but it's not hard in the ways that Faulkner is.
I can't say much more as I don't want to give away anything. I will say this, though, if you don't read this book, you're missing out. Oprah wouldn't lead you astray and neither would I! (Okay, Oprah might! But I never would!)