The dust cover  description of Colson Whitehead’s  The UNDERGROUND RAILROAD is clear:  The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors  of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation of the history we all share.

Written as a narrative, The UNDERGROUND RAILROAD spares little in its descriptions and depiction of the physical and mental horrors of slavery.  Despite the dystopia, Whitehead  delivers glimmers of hope amidst the despair of each turning page.  Written as a narrative and the recipient of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The UNDERGROUND RAILROAD spares little in its descriptions and depiction of the physical and mental horrors of slavery.  Despite the dystopia, Whitehead  delivers glimmers of hope amidst the despair of each turning page.

The book adds to the  contemporary narrative of Twelve Years a Slave and  more recently Y’a’a Gyasi’s novel Homecoming.  See my overviews of the aforementioned here at




It is astonishing to this reader that Solomon Northrop’s narrative TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE lay silent in literary archives for over 100 years. Each compelling paragraph cries out to be voiced and has not lost one syllable over the decades, as indicted in the book’s dedication to Harriet Beecher Stowe whose Uncle Tom’s Cabin is throughout the world, identified with the reform of slavery.


I have seen the Oscar-winning motion picture but if you have not I urge you to read the book first. No film could begin to capture the depth and emotion evoked in the 336 pages of this personal narrative. By reading the book, the movie will become enormously more meaningful because it fills in all of the subtleties that could not possibly be accomplished by directors and editors.

“The institution that tolerates such wrong and inhumanity as I have witnessed, is a cruel,unjust and barbarous one.  Men may write fictions portraying lowly life but let them toil with him in the field, sleep with him in the cabin, feed with him on husks; let them behold him scourged, hunted, trampled on, and they will come back with another  story in their mouths. ”   Northrup’s narrative describes how the ” institution ” passed from father to son. ” Mounted on his pony the 12-year-old child  rides into the field with his whip playing the overseer , greatly to the father’s delight.  Without discrimination he applies the rawhide, urging the slaves forward with shouts, while the old man laughs and commends him as a thorough-going boy.’

Solomon Northrup , in his own words: ” This is no fiction, no exaggeration.  If I have failed in anything, it has been in presenting to  the reader too prominently the bright side of the picture.Those who read this book may form their own opinions of this peculiar institution.”

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE, the book and the movie combine to make a powerful testament to one of the darkest periods in American history.


Isabel Allende was born in Peru and raised in Chile. Her her 2009 novel Island Beneath The Sea, translated from its original Spanish, is the story of the evolution of slavery  in Saint-Dominque,  modern-day Haiti.  Allende,  like James Michener, establishes characters  so compelling that the reader becomes associated with every aspect of their lives.  Like Michener’s book Caribbean , Island Beneath The Sea begins with the saga of the annihilation by the Spaniards of the island’s Arawak Indians followed by the establishment of slavery as the economic  driver of the sugar industry throughout the Antilles.


The devastation and human suffering caused by the Spanish  is compounded when the French replace Spanish rule by establishing a permanent colony on Saint-Dominque.  The story of the great sugar plantations and the abhorrent treatment of the slaves imported from Africa is told through the life of a slave girl, Zarite’,  born of an African mother and a white sailor, neither of whom she never knew.

Island Beneath the Sea is a generational saga of the children of mixed black and white blood, that was so prevalent in plantation life.  Young girls became the forced lovers of the plantation masters and overseers with offspring by the hundreds bought and sold in the cycle of human bondage.  The story of Zarite’s survival is riveting , bringing to the reader an understanding of the plantation slave culture, later imported to the American south. In broad terms, I would classify Island Beneath the Sea as a historical novel.

In the early 1800s with the great slave revolts devastating the island’s plantations, the slave culture of the Caribbean migrated to America.  The economic driver expanded to include cotton and rice. The novel captures reality as Zarite, having been transported by circumstance from Saint Dominque ( Haiti)  to New Orleans  discovers that her emancipation and freedom, even in America, is a glass only half full, as an entire sub culture of mixed race ethnicity evolves and plantation life for the slave does not change.

Our contemporary discourse regarding slavery, heightened by the release of the movie Lincoln, makes this novel even more timely. Throughout its pages lies the heritage of the greatest issue faced by American’s transcending the 19th and 20th centuries.

Isabel Allende is the author of nine novels including Ines of My Soul, Daughter of Fortune and Portrait in Sepia., all of which were New York Times best sellers.  I am thankful for the introduction to Allende by my daughter much in the same way as I was grateful to a good friend for recommending Anya Seton’s Winthrop Women.  You too will not be disappointed!