Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad’: The YSJ Big Summer Read 2018 Round-Up

As summer draws to a close, it is time to put away our YSJ Big Summer Read and turn our attention to the novels, plays, poetry and films that we’ll be reading and discussing throughout the new term. However, before we do that, here is a quick round-up of what everyone thought about this year’s Summer Read: Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad!

Although it was neck-and-neck between Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum (a beloved text that many of our soon-to-be-graduating Third Years remembered from their Freshman semester) and Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, Whitehead clinched it at the last minute and won our online poll.

This tale of escape from slavery proved a hugely popular text for this year’s YSJ Big Summer Read, with more people than ever joining in. In unprecedented scenes, it wasn’t just staff and students from Literature taking part, but people from all across the university!

We loved seeing every tweeting about the book, not just to see so many people enjoying taking part, but because we got to see the book papped at all manner of exotic locations!


The People’s Verdict

Not only were people reading the book, but many took to social media to share their reading experience and it seems that universally, readers noted that despite being rooted in history, the events and attitudes portrayed remain brutally relevant. As recent graduate and soon-to-be postgraduate Nicoletta Peddis noted:

Likewise, the University’s Senior Accountant Veronika Charlesworth was struck by the myriad parallels thrown up in Whitehead’s telling of this historical tale:

Many of our reader’s commented on how uncomfortable a read this novel is, with our Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Dr Jo Waugh, highlighting the perpetual violence throughout the text as one of its most haunting elements:

We also heard from Dr Anne-Marie Evans, our Subject Director for Literature, who specialises in American Literature:

I’m delighted that Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was selected for this year’s Big Summer Read. In a career littered with awards and critical plaudits, The Underground Railroad has brought Whitehead a new kind of commercial success. He is one of the most exciting and imaginative American writers working today, and I’ve been a huge fan of his work for several years. (If you want to read more, try reading Zone One, his existential homage to the zombie novel, or The Intuitionist, a noir thriller set in an alternative version of New York). I’m especially interested in how Whitehead plays around with the idea of spaces and ‘safe spaces’ in his fiction. In The Underground Railroad, Cora continually thinks that she might have found a safe space to hide, only to have this belief cruelly dashed. The text is essentially a kind of picaresque, a travel narrative that documents Cora’s increasingly fraught travels around the US, and one that is punctuated by some shocking moments of violence. The way that Whitehead reimagines America – with hints of steampunk in the domineering skyscrapers of North Carolina, for example – is intended to make explicit the connection between the enslaved Cora’s fight for freedom and contemporary debates and racial equality in the US today. Reading the book last year, as Cora learns to equate invisibility with freedom from oppression, I found it impossible not to think of the real-life case of Trayvon Martin (and of course also Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Philando Castile; the list is distressingly long) and I think that this is one way in which we are meant to engage with the text. Cora’s fears seem terrifyingly real and relevant, and this is what Whitehead wants his reader to think about.

Thank you to all who took part in this year’s YSJ Big Summer Read. If you have a suggestion for what we should be reading next summer, hang onto it; we’ll begin canvassing ideas in April!