Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Title: The Underground Railroad
Author: Colson Whitehead

First line: The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.

Review: This novel, a new Oprah pick, imagines the Underground Railroad as a literal railroad. Our heroine Cora escapes on it with another slave, Caesar, and they travel through the south in hopes on making it up north to freedom.

Though a real railroad, it doesn't offer a direct route to freedom: each passenger must choose a route and hope the station at the end is open. Cora and Caesar find themselves first in "liberal" South Carolina, but paradise is tainted (perhaps my favorite chapter, brilliantly recasting actual history). From there, Cora lands in places worse and less worse as she travels the rail line.

While the majority of the novel is in Cora's point-of-view, about a third of the novel follows Ridgeway, the slave catcher pursuing Cora -- fueled by his lingering fury at not catching Cora's mother decades earlier. There are one-off chapters featuring other POVs (her mother's chapter -- ohemgee, that one killed me!) but Cora is so appealing, the chapters without her were the loneliest for me.

An incredibly readable literary novel. Touches of magical realism with flat out realism; imaginative smudging with the historical timeline, too. I was captivated until the last chapter; the end didn't do it for me, however. It felt incomplete. (I haven't read Gulliver's Travels, which I think this is modeled on; perhaps that's how it ends?)

Still, I'm torn about "enjoying" this one; I'm haunted by Kara Brown's Jezebel article "I'm So Damn Tired of Slave Movies":
" I’m tired of watching black people go through some of the worst pain in human history for entertainment, and I’m tired of white audiences falling over themselves to praise a film that has the courage and honesty to tell such a brutal story. When movies about slavery or, more broadly, other types of violence against black people are the only types of films regularly deemed “important” and “good” by white people, you wonder if white audiences are only capable of lauding a story where black people are subservient."
It's different, of course, from a film made by white folks, but I still wonder if I'm feeding that machine. Need to sit with this a little and figure out the thornier parts. But a good novel, an accessible one.

In this year of #blacklivesmatter, Whitehead articulates the various ways America allows black lives to matter -- they don't; or they do if they [spoiler]; or they do if they accept the word of God; or, if, if if...

From a third into the novel: "...one might think one's misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality."

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Mid-19th Century / US South / Slavery / Underground Railroad)
Publisher/Publication Date: Doubleday (8/2/2016)
Source: NetGalley
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Comments

  1. Yeah, I can see your dilemma. Still, I think I need to read this book.

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  2. I wonder at this dilemma too, especially given that it is an Oprah pick. Why did she choose it? I'm not sure, as I haven't read much about this one, but I find it interesting that it raises this dilemma and it was chosen by Oprah. Are we all just feeding that machine?

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  3. Ha, see, I virtually never consume fiction about slavery because I fully can't deal with it emotionally. If I'm going to consume media about slavery, it's going to be nonfiction so at least I'm learning something from the experience. So almost none of what I read and watch by black creators is slavery-based, and I do not have to worry about the thing Kara Brown identifies.

    ...I am still planning to read this though. I'm at least going to try it!

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