Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Review of 'The Underground Railroad' by Colson Whitehead

Please note: this is a book I read in 2017.  Due to starting a new job, I kept up in reading but fell behind in blogging.  Reviews for 2018 reads will begin after the remaining 2017 reviews are posted.  Thank you for your patience!

"Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia.  Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood-- where even greater pain awaits.  When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape.  Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead's ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor-- engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil.  Cora and Caesar's first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven-- but the city's placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens.  Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels.  Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates 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 a kinetic adventure tale of one woman's ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share."

This book was recommended to me by my mom after she read it with her book club.  It was such an interesting concept to me that I couldn't say no.  Then on top of that, my own book club wanted to read it before we temporarily dissolved.  So I was happy to have multiple reasons to pick it up.

One thing that I was especially interested to see work was the actual Underground Railroad.  I wanted to know how an actual, physical railroad would work in a story like this.  My first instinct was to think that this would have been a really effective method of escape, if it was only a reality at the time.  But it's quite dangerous and frankly, not possible.  So once I was able to set aside thoughts of How does it work?? I thought about why Colson Whitehead would bother to change this about the history of slavery for the sake of this book.  What was the point?  I'm still struggling to find the reasons for that.  So if you're coming to this book for the actual railroad part, you'll be disappointed.  Instead, come to this book to understand what life was like, even through the eyes of a fictional character, through the eyes of the slave.

Digging back into my memory to middle school history when I first remember talking about slavery in depth, a lot of what we learned was from the perspective of white people (in other words, the enslavers).  What a slave could cost, how they were brought to the U.S., what kind of work they were doing, how they could be freed... maybe it was because we were in middle school, but I don't remember getting a clear picture of the actual brutality that slaves went through.  Not to the fullest extent.  Reading this book was the first time where I feel like someone shook me and forced me to look and listen and understand.

My worry though is that too many will take this as a way to feel that shock (or read it because of the shock), feel sorry for a while and then promptly forget about what they read about.  I don't want people to read this book and think, "Well, at least things aren't like that now."  Yes, we don't have slaves the way there used to be slaves, but because slavery comes in more covert ways now, I think it's a little bit harder to draw parallels between the past and the present unless you have been seeking out to learn this information on your own.  There is still the prison system where prisoners of color are over-represented compared to the proportion of crimes actually committed.  And the brutality hasn't stopped either.  This story takes place pre-Civil War (as the description above says, anyway) and you can see the treatment African Americans received.  But then you fast forward to the 60s when there were Civil Rights marches and how people would brutalize those who participated in sit-ins and who were blasted with fire hoses in the street, attacked by dogs... to today, where you almost can't watch the news without hearing about African American boys, in particular, being killed for a variety of reasons that don't make sense with the fate they got.  Black Lives Matter protests where people are standing up for human rights and being arrested and dragged away... enduring a government that doesn't give a damn about you unless you're an elderly white male, fearing for your safety and in too many cases, your life.

I'm angry about this of course, but what I ultimately want to impress upon anyone who chooses to read this is that when you read this book, don't dismiss this because it's a thing of the past.  It's still happening, it's just changed and looks different in some ways.

This is a challenging read, so please just understand what you're getting into when you set out to read it.  Forget about the presence of the railroad in this book, because it really doesn't matter.  Pay attention to the people.

I give 'The Underground Railroad':
Thanks for Reading!


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