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Is This Book Overrated? The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

December 6, 2020

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is kind of an impressive book. It was a New York Times bestseller. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2017. It even has an impressive array of positive reviews on the back cover.

I’m reluctant to buy books because I rarely finish reading them anymore, but when I found a cheap copy at a used bookstore, I bought it. After all, it won a Pulitzer. Even if I didn’t like the book (I don’t always enjoy Pulitzers), I could find somebody else who’d appreciate it.

I actually finished reading The Underground Railroad, so that’s something. On the other hand, it took me more than six weeks to read it. I’m not that slow of a reader. I just didn’t feel like reading The Underground Railroad sometimes. And my reaction to the book was much different from those whose positive reviews ended up on the back cover of the book. For example:

*****

Oprah Winfrey wrote: “Kept me up at night, had my heart in my throat, almost afraid to turn the next page.”

I wouldn’t go that far. The Underground Railroad didn’t keep me up at night. I thought the author Whitehead didn’t write tension very well. Scenes that should have been riveting weren’t. Even though the book moved at a pretty good pace, I rarely felt suspense while I was reading. Maybe there was some suspense at the end of the chapter in North Carolina and toward the end when the reader finds out what happened to Mabel. Even worse, the Tulsa-like slaughter felt like it was written by a tired author going through the motions.

*****

People (magazine) wrote: “A great adventure tale teeming with memorable characters…

I disagree. It was a decent adventure with a couple memorable characters, but most of them had very little personality. They were very courageous, or very smart, or very evil. Even the protagonist Cora didn’t have much personality, except maybe she was stubborn and very determined, but those aren’t memorable character traits for a major character in a major novel. Homer was probably the most memorable character; at least he was the only character who wasn’t predictable.

*****

Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times wrote: “He (Colson Whitehead) has told a story essential to our understanding of the American past and the American present.”

That’s a bit overstated, especially if the reader believes that the Underground Railroad was literally an underground railroad. A reader should have a lot of background knowledge before reading The Underground Railroad; if not, the reader could get really confused about what happened when in United States history, especially during the South Carolina section of the novel.

The literal underground railroad itself wasn’t used as much as I thought/hoped it would be. The concept of a literal underground railroad was cool. The idea of it carried me through what I thought was a lackluster opening. Once it was introduced, the underground railroad was underused, especially at the abrupt end.

The Underground Railroad won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, so maybe there’s something that I’m missing in this book. I’m not saying it should NOT have won a Pulitzer Prize because I haven’t read the other nominees, and I’m not the type of blogger who’ll read other nominees just to see if the winner deserved it. However, I think it was at the very least overrated.

*****

What do you think? If you’ve read The Underground Railroad, what am I missing? Was Cora meant to be uninteresting? Was she interesting and I was just expecting too much? What other highly regarded books do you think are overrated?

2 Comments
  1. Haven’t read it – probably won’t read it. Everytime I read an award-winning book, I am always mildly disappointed – I wonder if it is just hype, or the Lemmings just following the Lemmings (oh – he thought it was a great book, so therefore, I must think it is a great book, and then I will tell my friends I read this great book, and they will think I am so culturally astute, and they will read it and even if they don’t think it is that great, they will say it is, because they don’t want to seem like they are missing the point – and so on and so forth).

    • Like you said, it’s hype, and it’s probably circular. Reviewers over-flatter the books, and then the reviewers (or their bosses) get the interviews (and there MIGHT be a kickback thrown in now and then).

      I can’t see Oprah saying, “Hey! His book sucked, but he’s here today to talk about it, and everybody gets a free copy!”

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