Friday, November 18, 2016

“The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead – How to Outrun Death and Slavery

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead - book cover
Slavery is without a doubt one of the least pleasant parts of American history, forever casting a shadow of guilt and shame on future generations, one that persists to this very day. As much as we would all like to forget any of that ever happened, we owe it to all the ones who suffered as well as ourselves to remember forever the brutal and unforgivable mistakes of our ancestors... after all, if we don't keep our own history in mind, we are indeed doomed to repeat it.

We can take many approaches to re-telling that history, but ultimately what's important is to have people empathize and connect with all victims, unjustly-tortured and murdered. Colson Whitehead decided to broach the subject by writing a novel about it, telling the story of slaves who are escaping from a plantation in Georgia in hopes of finally finding freedom and safety; the novel is rather appropriately-called The Underground Railroad.

If you've already invested yourself in this genre, then you'll find that it starts pretty much as you would expect it to. We are introduced to Cora, a slave working on the afore-mentioned Georgia plantation whose life is just an absolute hell. She is rejected even amongst her own, and the daily humiliation and suffering she is subjected to is described in vivid detail, with Whitehead trying to drive the nails straight into your heart, making you feel intense pity and sadness for her. He doesn't linger too much on her plantation life, giving just enough to paint a clear picture of what her day-to-day routine has been like her whole life.

Once we get acquainted with Cora, we are then presented with Caesar, a new arrival from Virginia who will change everything. From him, Cora learns about the fabled Underground Railroad, and together they decide to make a break for it. Unfortunately, she ends up killing a white boy and the two find themselves racing across America trying to make it to safe haven, all while a tireless slave catcher, Ridgeway, is getting closer and closer to catching them. It's at this point that the real story starts to unfold as we follow them from one town to the next and see all the different problems they are faced with in a climate of racism and hatred.

In my opinion, Whitehead decided to focus on a very important and overlooked phenomenon when Cora and Caesar travel to the Northern states: the fact that racism was still running rampant. He gives plenty of details as how hatred and paranoia in regards to coloured people made their way into the minds of of regular folk, giving an essential examination of how anger against a group of people can easily proliferate with the help of fear. Seeing how the population treated the protagonists and devilish propositions that were made, such as sterilization, really strikes a chord inside of you, and if anything, it makes you wish you could have done something about it. I feel the need to mention that mainly because I've found very few other books that focus on this aspect with such accuracy and dedication.

Now, there is a relatively controversial aspect to this book, and it happens when Cora and Caesar finally make their way to the Underground Railroad. In real life, the Railroad didn't really have anything to do with trains or tracks, instead being a vast and secretive network of people who worked together to smuggle slaves to freedom. In this novel, what we have is an actual, literal underground railroad, complete with underground trains and engineers and whatnot. While in itself this representation is entertaining, it contrasts with the realistic tone that was established for the rest of the book and ends up feeling a bit out of place. How much this bothers you mostly depends on how important you think it is for a historical novel to follow all the facts; after all, this is a work of fiction, and in the end having an actual railroad underground makes for a more entertaining story without sacrificing its moral teachings. My only hope is that people who are new to the subject will do their research about it rather than taking that information at face value.

The Underground Railroad is ultimately a character-driven book, and while the initial presentation of the protagonists certainly bears an impact, over the course of the story their development is more limited than I would like. They ultimately lacked complexity and beyond the suffering they went through, there was no real reason to empathize with or relate to them; you root for them because they are fighting for what we consider basic human rights, but that's about. I also found that as the book progressed, the structure of the plot started to suffer as we kept switching from the main story to various sub-plots, many of which just aren't that interesting or even relevant in the grand scheme of things. While these interruptions certainly didn't ruin the book, they did make it weaker than it ought to be at times.

With all of that being said, even when considering the negative factors, I have to admit that The Underground Railroad still stands as an entertaining story which offers an insightful glimpse into slavery and racism as it existed in pre-Civil War America. The book aims to teach just as much as it aims to make you feel, and will definitely be a rewarding experience for anyone looking for a novel about slavery and the Railroad.

Colson Whitehead (November 6, 1969)

Colson Whitehead

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Colson Whitehead is an American novelist based in New York who is best-known for his 1999 novel The Intuitionist as well as John Henry Days, published in 2001. Amongst the numerous prizes he was awarded are the 2000 Whiting Award, the 2002 MacArthur Fellowship, and the 2013 Guggenheim Fellowship.

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