Sunday, November 6, 2016

Review of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, is stunning. It really deserves a second read to see all the images and layers and questions, but there’s no way I’m jumping back into this harrowing story right now. Of course, one of Whitehead’s points as he takes his reader on a journey away from slavery is that this story is also the present. The reader should be devastated about this past and also about what we’re doing in our contemporary world.

The book follows Cora, a slave who escapes a Georgia plantation. The first 50 or so pages of the novel is straight-up historical fiction, but then Whitehead creates an alternate world in which the underground railroad is an actual railroad, with stations and trains. Moreover, he gets fancy with time periods. For instance, Cora leaves pre-Civil War Georgia and lands in a version of South Carolina that has skyscrapers and elements of history from the early 20th century.  The train travels to other states, too, and all of them incorporate different elements of social relations, racism, and the historical record. 

This book has all the terrible elements you’d expect from a story about slavery – so be warned that this will be a difficult read. I had a particularly interesting moment about two-thirds of the way through the story that reminded me of my experience reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. When I read that novel, I was struck by how much of a hopeful reader I am. I really need to believe in the possibility of happily-ever-after. It became increasingly clear in A Little Life that I was going to need to change my expectations. In The Underground Railroad, I also had a prick of awareness that “the North” might not be the magic terminus of this railroad and this story. And that is part of Cora’s experience here, too.  Hope drives her along but her experiences provide evidence that the hopefulness might be fruitless. (Discussion question: Is this ultimately a hopeful book?)

The Underground Railroad is the second terrific novel I’ve read this year about slavery and its legacy. Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, is also brilliant. It would be interesting to read these two books together and discuss the authors’ different approaches and interpretations. However, I’d sandwich a book about rainbows and unicorns in the center, because otherwise your heart might not be able to handle it.

You can find an good interview with Whitehead here (some spoilers included). The Underground Railroad is the current Oprah Bookclub pick and a 2016 National Book Award finalist.