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310 pages, Hardcover
First published August 2, 2016
What a world, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. 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, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand. - Colson Whitehead
People get ready, there’s a train a-coming - Curtis MayfieldIn Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Underground Railroad, he takes a figurative term and gives it a literal application. This Underground Railroad posits a literal brick, steel, and steam system that transports fleeing slaves from southern captivity to what is hoped to be a form of freedom. This RR has actual station agents and train conductors. Most importantly, it has passengers.
I had the idea for the book about 16 years ago, recalling how when I was a kid, I thought the Underground Railroad was a literal railroad and when I found out it wasn’t, I was disappointed. So I thought it was a cool idea, and then I thought, “Well, what if it actually was a real railroad? That seems like a cool premise for a book.” But I had just finished up a research-heavy project and wasn’t up for that kind of ordeal again, and I didn’t feel mature enough or up to the task. But every couple of years, when I was between books, I would pull out my notes and ask myself if I was ready. And inevitably I would realize that I wasn’t really up for it. It wasn’t until about two years ago that I really committed to the idea. - from the Bookpage interviewThere is much here that hearkens back to literary classics. Cora might certainly feel a kinship with Jean Valjean of Les Miserables, escaping a wretched life, but pursued by a relentless, Javert-like slave catcher, Arnold Ridgeway. Ridgeway had been enraged for years that he’d failed to find and bring back Cora’s mother, Mabel, who had fled six years earlier. One might also think of stories like Gulliver’s Travels, in which each stop along the journey points out another form of madness.
The first chapter in Georgia I tried to make realistic and stick to the historical record, and then after that, I wanted to stick to the truth of the black experience but not necessarily the facts. As we go to South Carolina and Indiana and the different states that Cora goes to, I am playing with history and time, moving things up to talk about the Holocaust, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, and the eugenics movement. So in some sense, it’s not really a historical novel at all because I’m moving things around. - from the Bookpage interviewWhitehead peppers Cora’s story with bizarre events, like regular public lynchings in one town, an early and bitingly grim version of public entertainment, reminiscent of feeding Christians to lions for the delight of the townspeople. A living history museum in which Cora plays the part of slaves through history in diverse tableaux makes your spidey senses wonder what might result.
Primarily I read slave narratives. There are a few histories of the Underground Railroad; one of the first ones I read, which proved the most useful was Bound for Canaan by Fergus Bordewich. That gave me an overview of the railroad, but the main thing was just reading the words of former slaves themselves. - from the Bookpage interviewIt would be a challenge to remain unmoved by Cora’s journey, and impossible to come away from reading this book without learning some things about the slave experience and the conditions that people treated as property endured.
The music stopped. The circle broke. Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early-morning dream. In the middle of a song on a warm Sunday night. Then it comes, always—the overseer’s cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude.And passages like that come up throughout the book. In many ways I felt like the same core ideas were repeating and while I agree history is like that, it made the book feel longer than it needed to, and I was ready to be done with it.
What a world it is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. 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, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.I feel like the one thing everyone knows about this brilliant book is that, as the Goodreads description says, “in Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil.” It’s absolutely true, and yet in some ways it might be the least interesting thing about The Underground Railroad. The use of a literal Underground Railroad allows the characters to easily move to different places throughout the United States in order to tell different stories, similar to Gulliver’s Travels and The Odyssey before it. It’s clever to be sure, but it’s a plot technique as much as anything. It’s the story that technique is used to tell that’s so impressive.
“All I truly know is that we rise and fall as one, one colored family living next door to one white family. We may not know the way through the forest, but we can pick each other up when we fall, and we will arrive together.”
Caesar pictured his father cutting cane in a Florida hell, burning his flesh as he stooped over the big kettles of molten sugar. The cat-o’- nine-tails biting into his mother’s back when she failed to keep the pace with her sack. Stubborn breaks when it don’t bend, and his family had spent too much time with the kindly white folks in the north. Kindly in that they didn’t see fit to kill you fast. One thing about the south, it was not patient when it came to killing negroes.There’s Mabel, the mother who left Cora behind years earlier to make her own escape from Randall Plantation: “The first and last things she gave to her daughter were apologies.” And there’s the villainous slave catcher Ridgeway, who failed to find Mabel years ago and pursues Cora with an Ahab/Javert-level intensity:
All these years later, I prefer the American spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the New, to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription—the American imperative.The Underground Railroad is beautifully written, even though it’s subject matter is often so dark. The brutality and injustice of it all comes alive:
The corpses hung from trees as rotting ornaments. Some of them were naked, others partially clothed, the trousers black where their bowels emptied when their necks snapped. Gross wounds and injuries marked the flesh of those closest to her, the two caught by the station agent’s lantern. One had been castrated, an ugly mouth gaping where his manhood had been. The other was a woman. Her belly curved. Cora had never been good at knowing if a body was with a child. Their bulging eyes seemed to rebuke her stares, but what were the attentions of one girl, disturbing their rest, compared to how the world had scourged them since the day they were brought into it?It’s the best kind of literary fiction, examining serious questions of the human condition using plain, unpretentious language that still concisely conveys clear, often haunting images and ideas. It must take incredible talent and work to craft such seemingly effortless prose. The Underground Railroad is an extraordinary work looking back on how far our country has come, and showing why we still have so far to go. A must read.
“They call this road the Freedom Trail now,” Martin said as he covered the wagon again. “The bodies go all the way to town.”
In what sort of hell had the train let her off?