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Thursday, September 1, 2016

Review of THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead

4 Stars
The Underground Railroad (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel by [Whitehead, Colson]
The central conceit in this novel is that the Underground Railroad was, like most children naively believe, an actual railroad with locomotives, conductors, and subterranean rail tunnels.   Of course, it’s not an express train.

The story focuses on Cora, a young slave in her late teens on a Georgia plantation.  She and another slave escape but are pursued by Arnold Ridgeway, a notorious slavecatcher.  The reader follows the various stops in her journey:  the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Indiana.  Each stop highlights new horrors and atrocities such as eugenics experiments and a Freedom Trail with countless putrefying bodies of tortured and murdered slaves hanging from the trees. 

Though one might think of this as a typical fugitive-slave narrative, it isn’t exactly a historical novel.  There’s the use of the train, of course, but there are also other anachronisms like high-rise buildings, elevators, and a Museum of Natural Wonders complete with statues of lions and a fountain in pre-Civil War America.  At times the book is more dystopian speculative fiction than historical fiction. 

The liberties taken with historical facts are deliberate.  The reader is supposed to see the past in the present and realize that progress has been slow.  Slavery was abolished but persecution and prejudice are still realities of life for blacks.  Ridgeway, for example, can be seen as a police officer using excessive or lethal force.  The discussion of new race laws forbidding blacks to enter a state reminded me of Donald Trump’s campaign promises to stop Mexican and Muslim immigration.  Certainly, the future is not depicted as totally rosy.  One abolitionist says, “That evil [slavery] soaks into the soil.  Some say it steeps and gets stronger’” (277).  At one underground station described as a “dank little hole” Cora speculates that “Construction hadn’t started beneath the house but at the other end of the black hole.  As if in the world there were no places to escape to, only places to flee” (257). 

The book questions whether true freedom actually exists for the blacks.  Though Cora manages to flee from her master, her movement is restricted and she is constantly at risk of losing that freedom.  Even when living a fairly settled life, she and other blacks are threatened by fearful neighbours.  At one point Cora has to hide in a cramped space above an attic roof, “a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand” and she realizes that “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 can see its true limits.  Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had” (179). The last sentence of the book reinforces the idea that perhaps no one ever really escapes slavery:  “She wondered where he escaped from, how bad it was, and how far he traveled before he put it behind him” (306).

Cora’s journey allows her and the reader to observe her nation.  One of the first conductors she encounters tells her, “’If you want to see what this nation is all about . . . you have to ride the rails.  Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America’” (69).  But as she travels, “There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness” (263). 

There is considerable commentary about America and most is not complementary.  Ridgeway speaks of the American spirit “Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor – if you can keep it, it is yours.  Your property, slave or continent.  The American imperative” (80) and “’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’” (221 – 222).  Cora sees the hypocrisy around her:  “The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters . . . But the ideas they held up for themselves, they denied others.  . . . She didn’t understand the words [of the Declaration of Independence] but created equal was not lost on her.  The white men who wrote it didn’t understand it either, if all men did not truly mean all men.  Not if they snatched away what belonged  to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom.  The land she tilled and worked had been Indian land. . . . Stolen bodies working stolen land” (117).  And a final condemnation:  “’And America . . . 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’” (285).

The novel strives to show how Americans have tried to manufacture their mythology.  For a while Cora works in the Museum of Natural Wonders where the exhibit entitled “Life on a Slave Ship” has a narrative:  “The story of the African boy went that after he came aboard, he helped out on deck with various small tasks, a kind of apprentice” (110).  The “Typical Day on the Plantation” exhibit has a slave sitting at a spinning wheel and resting her feet.  Cora realizes the many inaccuracies and contradictions:  “There had been no kidnapped boys swabbing the decks and earning pats on the head from white kidnappers.  The enterprising African boy . . . would have been chained belowdecks, swabbing his body in his own filth.  Slave work was sometimes spinning thread, yes; most times it was not.  No slave had ever keeled over dead at a spinning wheel or been butchered for a tangle.  But nobody wanted to speak on the true disposition of the world.  And no one wanted to hear it. . . . Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach” (116).

My problem with this book is the characterization of Cora.  I find that she is insufficiently developed.  I certainly felt sympathy and was horrified by the brutality she endures, but I felt distanced from her.  I think part of the problem is that Cora’s narrative is disjointed.  Interspersed with her chapters are short ones focused on people Cora meets (e.g. a doctor, an abolitionist’s wife, Cora’s fugitive partner) and brief transcripts of actual ads posted by owners of runaway slaves. 

I don’t normally agree with Oprah’s book choices, but this is an exception.  It is a book that should be read by everyone.  Though it is not historically accurate in one sense, deliberately so, it sheds light on a dark chapter of American history, a chapter that continues to be written.