The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead comes more highly recommended than most books I’ve come across: it joins some other books that US President Barack Obama praised in an interview with the New York Times. So that’s what I chose when I was lucky enough to win a book voucher in the Twelve Days of Christmas competition at Booker Talk (thanks Karen!) And The Underground Railroad didn’t disappoint. It’s one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a while.
Because it won the National Book Award as well as President Obama’s praise, and Oprah’s, and who knows what else, the book has been thoroughly reviewed everywhere. On the day I looked there are over 35,000 ratings at Goodreads and nearly 5000 reviews. I don’t need to Google reviews of it to know that there are pages of reviews from every major review site in the English speaking world. Perhaps it’s a bit pointless for me to add to the fray, but here goes anyway…
First of all, here is the blurb from the dust-jacket (which BTW is not quite the same as the one at GR, which spells out the metaphor which so troubles some readers).
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. All the slaves lead a hellish existence, but Cora has it worse than most; an outcast among her fellow Africans, she is approaching womanhood, where it is clear even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North.
In Whitehead’s razor-sharp imagining of the antebellum South, the Underground Railroad has assumed a physical form: a dilapidated box car pulled along subterranean tracks by a steam locomotive, picking up fugitives wherever it can. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But its placid surface masks an infernal scheme designed for its unknowing black inhabitants. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher sent to find Cora, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing journey, state by state, seeking true freedom.
At each stop, Cora encounters a different world. As Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans, to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once the story of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shatteringly powerful meditation on history.
So. In telling the story of this escape from slavery, Whitehead has chosen to meld fact and fiction in a way that is difficult for some readers to unpick. I am among them, because although my previous reading of The Mapmaker’s Children meant that I knew that the Underground Railroad was a network of safe houses and not a literal railway, there were other aspects of the story that might or might not have been factually based. On the Goodreads page for this book the blurb adds to the last paragraph by stating that the book is a meditation on the history we all share. But we, the readers in The Rest of the World, do not share that history. We do not learn about it as part of our nation’s history. We here in Australia, for example, have our own Black History to learn about; and most of us are not going to know whether there really was a eugenics program in South Carolina, or a staged program of weekly lynchings in North Carolina to exterminate any trace of black blood. Unless Whitehead is an author of tremendous hubris who expects his entire readership to ‘know the facts’, I suspect that metaphor is a guiding principle for reading this book.
What we are meant to take from it, I think, is a rebuttal of any claim that the UGRR was a white artefact only, and more than that, it is an assertion that black labour, bond and free, built America.
The stairs led onto a small platform. The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light coloured stones in an alternating pattern, The sheer industry that had made such a project possible. Cora and Caesar noticed the rails. Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel, pinned into the dirt by wooden cross-ties. The steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus. Someone had been thoughtful enough to arrange a small bench on the platform. Cora felt dizzy and sat down.
Caesar could scarcely speak. ‘How far does the tunnel extend?’
Lumbly shrugged. ‘Far enough for you.’
‘It must have taken years.’
‘More than you know. Solving the problem of ventilation, that took a bit of time.’
‘Who built it?’
‘Who builds anything in this country?’
Cora saw that Lumbly relished their astonishment This was not his first performance.
Caesar said, ‘But how?’
‘With their hands, how else?’ (p.67)
Now, as it happens, I am listening to a new book by Jodi Picoult on my daily drive to visit my father. It’s called Small Great Things and I’d heard about it on Radio National’s Books and Arts program. (You can listen to the program here). Although I’m not a JP enthusiast, I saw Small Great Things as an audio book at the library and bought it home because its treatment of contemporary racism in the US had made it sound like an important book. What I was not expecting as I drove along in Melbourne’s peaceful sunshine was that the narration of Ruth, the African-American nurse who encounters a White Supremacist in the maternity hospital where she works, would be followed by the chilling hatred of Turk, the baby’s father. The male actor reading the narration made his invective so loathsome, his voice reverberating in my car as I drove along, that I could hardly bear it. It was distressing because I knew from the interview with Jodi Picoult that this characterisation was based on real-life research. There are indeed people like this character Turk, actively promoting and perpetrating racial hatred and acts of violence. More of them, she says, have been emboldened since the election of Donald Trump.
And so I came to my reading of The Underground Railroad’s contentious pages about the eugenics program and the weekly lynchings knowing that there was indeed a determination to make sure that the power in society could never be usurped by slaves, and that there was a fear that White people would be outnumbered by the growing numbers of slaves. Were there people advocating sterilisation of Black women and the genocide of the Black population? You bet there were, and not just in America, and not just in the 19th century. And sad to say, there are still some persisting in their fear-generated hatred, now in 21st century America.
The author articulates this clearly when Lander tells Cora in their refuge at Valentine Farm that a useful delusion is better than a useless truth.
Here’s one delusion: that we can escape slavery. We can’t. Its scars will never fade. When you saw your mother sold off, your father beaten, your sister abused by some boss or master, did you ever think you would sit here today, without chains, without the yoke, among a new family? Everything you ever knew told you that freedom was a trick – yet here you are. Still we run, tracking by the good full moon to sanctuary.
Valentine farm is a delusion. Who told you that the negro deserved a place of refuge? Who told you that you had that right? Every minute of your life’s suffering has argued otherwise. By every fact of history, it can’t exist. This place must be a delusion. Yet here we are.
And America, too, 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 this world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are. (p.285)
Readers will argue about the author subverting the historical record to write this novel, but I think they’ve missed the point.
There is just one segment where IMO Whitehead, writing the perspective of his female protagonist, got it very wrong indeed. Late in the novel Cora fantasises about a missed opportunity to make love with Royal. Putting it mildly, I do not think that a woman gang-raped so savagely that she had to be stitched together again, would have the sort of fantasy ascribed to her on page 304.
Author: Colson Whitehead
Title: The Underground Railroad
Publisher: Fleet UK, 2016
Source: won in Karen’s Twelve Days of Christmas competition at Booker Talk.
Available from Fishpond: The Underground Railroad