Friday, October 21, 2016

Historical Fiction: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad first came to my attention when it was picked for Oprah's Book Club, and I imagine the same is true for a lot of people. I read Whitehead's Zone One, another take on the zombie apocalypse scenario, back in 2012 and had fairly mediocre feelings towards it. But I decided to give Whitehead another chance, especially seeing as the premise of this book could not be more different from Zone One.

The Situation: Cora was born a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Her mother, Mabel, escaped years before, making Cora a "stray," and her stubbornness and strong will make her an outcast, even among the other slaves. For the most part she does her work and keeps to herself, never really entertaining the idea of escape, at least not seriously, until Caesar comes along and asks her to join him on his attempt. Her initial "no" eventually turns into a "yes" when Cora is severely punished for attempting to protect another slave. Both Cora and Caesar know it won't be easy, and if caught, the punishment will be creative and hellish, ultimately leading to death. But the pair head to the Underground Railroad anyway, hoping for the freedom that so many dreamed of but failed to achieve.

The Problem: Cora and Caesar may know that escape won't be easy, but they don't quite realize how hard it will be, or all of the different obstacles that can stand in their way. After taking on an extra passenger that ends up slowing them down, their trip is almost over before they even reach the Underground Railroad when a group of hunters find them. And after Cora kills a white boy out of self-defense, the hunters are no longer looking for just a runaway slave, but a murderer as well. Her dream of no longer being someone's property takes her through South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana. The racial climate is different in each location, but no matter how accepting the area may be, Cora must always be on the watch. If she lets down her guard even the slightest bit, she is in danger of being captured and returned to her vengeful master.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in pre-Civil War America. In this book, the Underground Railroad becomes more than a metaphor for the system of pathways, routes, and the people who helped run it, that allowed many slaves to escape to freedom. Whitehead has the Underground Railroad take on a much more literal meaning and role as it becomes a system of actual train tracks that are run underground, with small train cars run by conductors. Many of the stops that Cora comes across are managed by white abolitionists who are risking their own lives and reputations by helping fugitive slaves. And because Cora travels to many different states, never able to settle in just one for too long, the reader is able to see how the different states each deal with slavery and racial tension. In Georgia, Cora is a slave and is treated as such. In South Carolina, things appear to be a bit more hopeful, only for Cora to discover that there are many ways to oppress an entire race of people, even under the guise of helping them. And then there is Indiana, where an entire community of black people, some former slaves and some born free, live together out in the open, almost completely free from outside oppression...almost. Cora's journey takes us through different parts of the US during one of the country's darkest points in history, showing us that slavery in American was not a one size fits all situation.

My Verdict: Yes, it is about slavery. Yes, it contains brutality. And yes, at times it was very hard to read. With that being said, I can see why Oprah picked it. Unflinching honesty is almost always what you want in a book that deals with such a hard subject. But Whitehead isn't brutally honest and graphic just for the sake of being brutally honest and graphic. And Cora isn't the type of heroine who sits and waits for someone else to rescue her, though she does have to depend on people from time to time in order to get away unnoticed. Another great thing about her is that she doesn't despair much, or at least she isn't dramatic about it. When she does lose hope, or when things do look bad, Whitehead gives her emotions, but I got the sense that Cora didn't dwell on them much, or let them overtake her, making her journey a lot easier to follow.  

Favorite Moment: When Cora covers the body of a fellow slave being beaten, at great detriment to her own physical well-being.

Favorite Character: Sam is a white man sympathetic to slaves and assists fugitives and run-aways. He runs one of the stops along the Underground Railroad at risk to his own life and property.   

Recommended Reading: I highly recommend Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. This book reaches further back into the slave trade process, starting in Africa, and follows two branches of the same family tree as one family line ends up in America, while the other stays in Africa and must deal with the effects of the slave trade there.    

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