Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 25, 2017

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

the-underground-railroadThe 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
ISBN: 9780708898390
Source: won in Karen’s Twelve Days of Christmas competition at Booker Talk.

Available from Fishpond: The Underground Railroad


Responses

  1. It sounds a very good book, but I wonder how good Americans are at deciphering metaphor. It seems to me the author expects the reader to know a lot of history. In passing, with audio books if the reader starts haranguing someone, it feels like I’m the one being harangued and I press fast forward.

    • Well, you only have to look at a few reviews at GR or LT to see that you are right. There are some who are rather indignant about the departures from the factual record. And I didn’t need to look to see a racist review either. Perhaps Obama and Oprah’s recommendation has led people who wouldn’t ordinarily read this kind of book to try it, and they are disappointed by it. But hey, if we’re only going to get books that are accessible to people who can’t decipher metaphor, it’s time to give up reading. It’s literary fiction, and it uses literary devices…
      Re the audio book: it was a reality check for me…

  2. Sounds great! I have two Whitehead books in my TBR, Zone One and Sag Harbour and both look interesting.

    • Yes, I hadn’t realised he was already a well-known author:) I look forward to your reviews!

  3. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  4. Re: the Goodreads reviews, I’m always baffled when people get indignant about metaphor, and particularly in this book, when so much of it isn’t—the eugenics programs were real, the infection of unknowing black people with syphilis was real! The violence, even the seemingly extreme stuff like the punishment of Big Anthony, was real. That stuff happened. It always seems like the height of privilege (at best) for white readers to be all “how dare he make things up”.

    I’m in the midst of this book right now, actually, so skipped over your comments about the misstep at the end (I’ll have to wait and see!) But I’m glad it didn’t disappoint you. I’m loving it; “thought-provoking” is an apt word. It’s making me think so hard, about the legacy of these actions and the way history bleeds into the culture of whole races, whole peoples, whole countries.

    • Yes, I find it baffling too. I mean, I’m sure I remember learning about metaphor early in my secondary school years, and I can’t think of any reason why teachers wouldn’t still be teaching it. Maybe some people are just very literal thinkers?

      • I think it’s rooted in resentment. Metaphor is hard mental work—making the connection between what you’re being told and what it represents requires quite a lot of thought—and I think many people don’t expect to be made to work quite so hard by their reading, especially if they see reading as a leisure activity!

        • Yes, of course, I hadn’t thought of it that way. It’s a different way of thinking about reading, limiting it to relaxation, I guess.
          It’s perhaps similar to the way some people think about computers. Even when I was working a 60 hour week I spent part of every day online, chatting to my blogging friends, discovering new things etc and I would feel a bit lost without it, so I tend to be a bit evangelical about the benefits of having an online life.
          But I shouldn’t have been so surprised when I met someone who said she spent her whole work day at a computer and the last thing she wanted to do when she got home was to get back on it again. Maybe readers who just want relaxation from it just need a little down time for the brain:)

          • Ooh, I like the comparison with screen time! It’s a really interesting thought—hadn’t ever occurred to me before, but since I totally get where your friend is coming from, that helps the reading-as-downtime-activity make more sense to me. I read CONSTANTLY, including at times when it is not sane or safe or sensible (much like many book bloggers I think!), so my reading doesn’t really need to fulfil the purpose of relaxing me.

            • No, nor me. I don’t read to relax, I read to be stimulated by new ideas.

  5. Thoughtful review. Whitehead probably didn’t write the jacket copy or the GR blurb, and I think Americans in general wrongly categorize “American history” and “everyone’s history” (try living next door to them, lol). I’m reading his first novel, The Intuitionist right now, which is kind of an alternate version of 1950s New York and definitely deviates from history and is rife with metaphor, so seems like that’s kind of his thing!

    • LOL “living next door”!

  6. I audiobooked this recently. I know that it received great reviews, but to be honest I must say that it didn’t click for me. Certainly it is excellent in describing the tragedy that Black Americans went through in America. My biggest challenge was that I didn’t connect to the characters.

    I am truely glad that so many people loved this book. It speaks to many.

    By contrast, though it isn’t specifically about the Underground Railroad, “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi has me hardly being able to put it down. It begins in Africa, but follows people captured to be slaves in America, their crossing, arrival, and what follows. Excellent!

    • Hello Heidi, I think I have a copy of Homecoming, probably on my Kindle…

  7. […] Kitteridge is an interesting contrast to the last book I read.  Like The Underground Railroad, it’s an award-winning book, picking up the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009.  But whereas […]

  8. I read this book late last year and was blown away by it. I keep wanting everyone I meet to read it.

    • It’s great when you find a book like that. I bet publishers value this word of mouth endorsement more than any other kind of publicity.

  9. Americans are introduced in elementary school (probably 4th or 5th grade) to the idea of the underground railroad. The visual we very often produced in our heads was of a physical train under the earth going from one cellar in a safe house to the next. It was always a shock in 10th grade or so to find out it was not a real railroad under the ground- that it was indeed a metaphor. Sometimes we felt like we’d been lied to. (“It wasn’t real?”)

    I think Whtehead did a marvelous job in bringing the old imagined train to life. I see this as being an obvious Pulitzer choice, but there are others this year – The Sellout by Paul Beatty, for one.

    Yes, it’s definitely an American book – the other scenarios which play out also have a basis in our history. Also yes, racism has apparently reared its ugly head even higher now that Trump is in office but I personally haven’t seen it. These are the people who hated having to be politically correct – now they think they can be just plain ugly, I guess.

    • I haven’t read The Sellout yet (I am so behind with everything) but I’m expecting it to be good.
      I’m glad you haven’t seen any of the Trump era racism yet, hopefully enough good people will react the way they always have and the people emboldened by Trump will realise that he does not speak for the majority.

      • The Sellout is an amazing satire on race and the politics of race. These writers are so important in these dark days in the U.S.

  10. I was looking at this in the bookshop the other day. Passed it by but might get there eventually

  11. Hi Marg, good to hear from you!

  12. These reviews are even more important now as the political establishment in the USA seeks to turn the clock back to this time of white supremacist priorities, with new black and brown victims as the focus of national policies of exclusion.

    • Yes, it’s the common conversation of ordinary people speaking up for values that matter that will see us through the swamp.

  13. Lisa, your review was thought-provoking. I read The Underground Railroad last fall. Colson Whitehead blurs the boundaries of fact and fiction through out the narrative. With regard to the protagonist’s rape on the slave plantation, I do think that Cora’s desire to be intimate with Royal is believable. During Cora’s travels and stops along the underground railroad, her perception of black men begins to change and evolve through her friendships with Caesar and Royal. Royal, in particular, provides a sacred space for Cora to envision herself as an empowered black woman despite the shackles and runaway slave ad that attempts to stagnate her fight for freedom.

    The following are a list of neo-slave narratives that capture the obscure and silenced experiences of African Americans during the slavery era:
    The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman by Ernest J. Gaines
    The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
    Citizen’s Creek by Lalita Tademy
    Beloved by Toni Morrison
    Grace by Natashia Deon
    The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
    Kindred by Octavia Butler
    Song Yet Sung by James McBride
    The Known World by Edward P. Jones
    Jubilee by Margaret Walker

    • Thanks:) I’ve read three of these and reviewed the first two: Beloved by Toni Morrison and The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (titled Someone Knows My Name, here in Oz). I also read The Known World by Edward P. Jones but that was before this blog.

  14. […] 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber) (I’ll need a lot of persuading, I haven’t liked his fiction up to now) Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Ireland) (Faber & Faber), see my review History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), debut novel, but I’m open to persuasion Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan-UK) (Hamish Hamilton), see my review Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Ireland) (Canongate), see my review Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (UK) (4th Estate), on my wishlist Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals), debut novel, but I’m open to persuasion The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (India) (Hamish Hamilton), already on my TBR Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury), not keen on the sound of this Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (UK-Pakistan) (Bloomsbury), probably not, not keen after reading her previous one Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton), maybe… Swing Time by Zadie Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton), see my review The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (US) (Fleet), see my review. […]


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