Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Occasionally a novel appears and turns what we know topsy-turvy to shock us into seeing history through new lenses. The Underground Railroad is such a novel. It’s entirely original and is fantastic in the true sense of the word as it’s a fantasy of ultimate proportions complete with a literal underground railroad with stations, stops, and spurs where white tile walls and station agents can be touched and where an escaped slave can begin a journey north toward freedom. Colson Whitehead creates a realm in which Cora, a young teen-aged slave on a Georgia plantation, carefully plots her escape, but her plans go awry when she kills a young white boy who tries to capture her and she needs to quickly find a station on the Underground Railroad that lies beneath the cotton-filled land in the years just before the Civil War.

As the novel lulls you into its rhythm, you’re soon flying through the pages to see what Cora will next encounter. You find yourself in another world, one in which tall buildings materialize in early nineteenth century South Carolina, a place where blacks can go to school and find employment yet a menacing threat lurks below the surface. Later you journey to North Carolina where it’s a given that black people are being annihilated and Cora wonders, “Was she out of bondage, or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had.”

When Ridgeway, the slave catcher, captures Cora and drags her to Tennessee, they enter a land being destroyed by fire. She’d been told that each state was a state of possibility, with its own customs so the smoke and fire of Tennessee didn’t portend well and “Tennessee proceeded in a series of blights.” Cora is first certain that Tennessee is cursed then she wonders if the fires weren’t “Just a spark that got away.” “No chains fastened Cora’s misfortunes to her character or actions. Her skin was black and this was how the world treated black people. No more, no less. . . . If Tennessee had a temperament, it took after the dark personality of the world, with a taste for arbitrary punishment. No one was spared, regardless of the shape of their dreams of the color of their skin.”

Whitehead offers beauty even as Cora ruminates on lists: lists preserving “the names of workers in rows of tight cursive. Every name an asset, breathing capital, profit made flesh. The peculiar institution made Cora into a maker of lists as well. In her inventory of loss people were not reduced to sums but multiplied by their kindnesses. People she had loved, people who had helped her.”

Whitehead’s careful words always share Cora’s story and the greater story of the sins of slavery. Even a stop along the trail allows time for Cora to “make a thick braid of her misfortunes.” The stops also allow the reader to shift from the narrative into ruminations over what Whitehead is showing us about our shared history.  “And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

Colson Whitehead has created an imagined world in which Cora becomes a Gulliver traveling down the rabbit hole and emerging in an alternate universe. However, that created universe, despite how different it might be from the pre-Civil War south of our history books, is still a land where the peculiar institution of slavery rules – and where embedding ourselves in that world helps us see how the cruel enterprise of slavery still shapes our world today. When you read the last page of The Underground Railroad, it’s just the beginning of your journey with the novel. This book will shape how you see everything. It makes it impossible to ignore.

Summing It Up:The Underground Railroad is a masterpiece of invention that takes the reader into another world where slavery is made real in all its wrenching, horrific power. It's a tour de force that every American must read to understand history. Thankfully, it's gorgeously written and the characters, setting, and narrative together offer the reader an engaging story while enlightening and enlivening our shared world. Reading The Underground Railroad should be required of all over the age of sixteen.

Note: The Underground Railroad is one of ten novels longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award.
Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Gourmet, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: September 6, 2016
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