Saturday, November 26, 2016

Colton Whitehead's The Underground Railroad

Toward the end of the calendar year, I’m always thinking back on all the books I’ve read during the year, trying to decide which I liked best, which I would recommend to whom, which I would read again. Whenever online book sites try to recommend books for me based on what I’ve bought from them, I have to laugh. I don’t think there is an algorithm to decipher my reading preferences. I prefer literary fiction, but I read all kinds of books--autobiography, lots of poetry, spirituality, self-improvement.

I will confess, too, that I while I am a picky reader, I am no reading purist. Yes, I love to hold a book in my hands, to turn the pages, to write in the margins, but I also keep a book going on my iPad all the time, along with one in the CD player of my car. Just give me stories; just give me words.

I still have several books I plan to mention in coming posts, but I just finished Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, so I must share.  I heard Whitehead speak at Parnassus Books a few weeks ago and found him an engaging, entertaining speaker. I particularly liked his premise, writing about the Underground Railroad the way he imagined it as a child—a real train running on underground tracks. Ann Patchett, when asked who would win the Pulitzer Prize this year, predicted this one would "win it all."

Whitehead begins the book in Georgia, where Cora, a slave who still resents her own mother for running and leaving her behind, is invited to escape with Caesar, another slave on the same plantation, purchased after his Virginia owner died, failing make good on her promise to free him at her death. The master's death has left them in the hands of a particularly cruel son. Things can only get worse.

The two go first to South Carolina, deceptively safe for awhile. She works first in the home of a local family, and then at the history museum’s live exhibit, sometimes reenacting live on the plantation, sometimes on the slave ship. Then her past threatens to catch up with her.

Their next stop takes them to North Carolina, where state laws have recently closed the doors on all blacks, free or slaves, with a gruesome Friday night ritual she witnesses from the attic where she hides, virtually enslaved again.

Always just over her shoulder is the infamous slave catcher still bitter over failure to find and return Cora’s mother. Eluding him, she ends up in Indiana at a rather Utopian community of blacks, some freedmen, some mixed race members who have, at times, passed as white, and many former slaves.

Whitehead manages to weave in the first person accounts of others in Cora’s story, filling in pieces along the way. His final product is the story of one slave that translates to the story of all slaves, balancing hope and hatred, the past and the future.  Those who played a role in the real underground railroad become three-dimensional characters who might be our own neighbors. They might be ourselves. I suspect the story will haunt me for a long, long time.


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