From what I’ve read, Colin Whitehead’s new book The Underground Railroad was popped onto the shelves more than a month earlier than the expected September 13 date. It was already highly anticipated as a really “hot” book for fall reading, but when Oprah Winfrey makes a phone call publishers listen, so Whitehead’s book was miraculously ready for Oprah’s big announcement on Aug 2. The author himself was overjoyed.
The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead
2016 / 308 pages
rating: 9 / historical fiction (alternative history)
I’m a tad disappointed but there could be a couple reasons for that. First, I just finished The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen and that’s enough of a good book to last months. Whitehead’s book pales when it’s put right up against that of Nguyen’s multi-award prize winner. The other reason is the media hype, I suppose. I was already going to read it and then came the Oprah announcement – right – that probably put my expectations over the top. (And I’m not a huge Oprah fan.)
So what good can I say about it? Many, many things, it turns out – The Underground Railroad is brilliantly creative and Whitehead takes his readers on a whirlwind tour mostly of the South as it was for blacks between 1800 and up to today in some ways. Most of the action takes place in the 1850s, the time when the Fugitive Slave laws were at their height. And the use of a physically real “underground railroad” (and that is an interesting site) which becomes a physical means of transportation from one place and time to another is – well – Whitehead did win a McArthur genius award. The train stations are placed down tunnels under trap-doors in old barns and they even have small seats for when the passengers have to wait. It’s a fascinating concept, one many of us imagined in childhood history lessons, and it’s never overdone. And it’s nothing like magical realism because the fantastical is so limited. It’s also a great metaphor. The rest of the narrative is quite realistically presented – lots and lots of research went into this book.
But the railroad works as a metaphor for the pathway to freedom – someone must have built it, someone has to travel through its dark chambers, somewhere there must be places to go up and see the world – but are those places of freedom? Or are they more places of a destiny less desirable?
This is not the story of one plantation or one family or even one area – it’s not like anything you’ve likely read before. It’s more of a little travelogue of horrors and at one point it put me in mind of On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee (a really extraordinary travelogue-type book, imo). Structurally it’s interesting but somewhat difficult what with all the changes in time and place – it’s a rough road.
Cora is an 11-year old slave girl on the Randall plantation in Georgia when we meet her. Her mother has made her own bid for freedom leaving Cora to the other women in the Hob, the cabins for the infirm and breeding women. Cora gets a few years older, is put to work, and finally makes the break herself with the help of a friend named Caesar, a slave of northern origins, who thinks she can do it.
Along the way Cora meets a variety of strange people, some loving and helpful, others as mean as they come. And there are slave hunters after her, particularly one named Ridgeway who has made her capture a personal project. But taking the cake for interesting characters is a little guy named Homer age about 10 or 12 who is the free Black companion of Ridgeway and I will just let you read about him.
Apparently Whitehead did an enormous amount of research for this and put the pieces of slave diaries together to form a mosaic of black history in American and the quest for freedom expand from then to now and from here to the world.