Monday, April 10, 2017

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead Review

Update 4/10/2017 Colson Whitehead has won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for The Underground Railroad. I so wish that I had enjoyed it more than I did, but I am so glad that Whitehead is getting lots of recognition! If you have read this one and loved it let me know!

This is another difficult book to review. Because the subject of the book is slavery and all of it's horrors, Underground Railroad is not meant to be enjoyed, but experienced. With that in mind I went into this one knowing that I wouldn't turn the last page with any sense of rightness in the world. What I did hope for was a conclusion that felt like a solid resolution was reached and I didn't get that. What Whitehead delivers is such a densely horrific story that sucked me into a world of despair and hopelessness that seemed to never end. This had to be the intent, because there is no way that this kind of darkness and sense of forlorn could have been accidental. 

I'll start off with what I did like about The Underground Railroad. The main characters created by Whitehead are realistic, relatable, and developed well. Witnessing what Cora goes through makes her strength all that more remarkable. Although the majority of the evil is represented and perpetrated by the whites in the story, Whitehead does have whites whose intentions are good. To be fair there aren't many, but they are there. It would have been very easy to paint every white person Cora encountered with a broad and negative brush, but Whitehead pulls up just shy of doing that. Also, the secondary characters all have significance and fit well within the trajectory of the story. I know that it shows my own pettiness, but I actually enjoyed the few microaggressions allowed to Cora and a few of the other slaves and runaways that have opportunities to lash out in their own ways.

I tab throughout the book when I read literary fiction and this one was no exception. For a book that I found difficult to get through, there were many things that I felt compelled to mark and go back to as I read. The most poignant passage in relation to Cora that stood out for me was at the end of the book. When Cora is listening to a negro poet that is visiting the community that she wants to settle in, Cora's thought is that "Versifying left her cold. Poems were too close to prayer, rousing regrettable passions. Waiting for God to rescue you when it was up to you. Poetry and prayers put ideas in people's heads that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanisms of the world." This is a perfect summation of Cora's practical and understandably cynical approach to life. Cora can't focus on or appreciate the beauty and hope of the words spoken, because in her very short life she hasn't experienced either in any measurable amounts.

Now to what I had issues with, and unfortunately they greatly outnumber what I appreciated. Whitehead invoked every single indignity, abuse, and crime ever perpetrated by the ruling whites of this time (and some from the future) against African Americans. They all seem to be represented in this story. Beatings, floggings, lynchings, rape, humiliation, the breaking of bodies and spirits through varied insidious means, forced and/or coerced sterilizations, medical experimentation on unwitting patients, the practice of breeding human beings as if they were horses or dogs to achieve 'desirable' characteristics, night riders, and blood thirsty mobs are all found within these approximate 300 pages. Because Cora's world is by design and necessity so small and closed off, all of her horrors are experienced closely together by both her and the reader. Everything is experienced so closely together, within the span of less than a year, that by about 75% in, I just wanted the story to end. With that being said, if I felt that way by just reading what Cora is experiencing and witnessing, the fact that people-real flesh and blood human beings-lived through and survived situations exactly like what is being described is mind boggling and gut wrenching.   

Another issue that I had is the idea of the 'negro betrayer' at every turn. There is always that one person throughout this story that can't be trusted and that will choose the oppressor over his own. Whether they be slave or free, the betrayer makes no distinction when looking out for himself over the benefit of anyone else. At almost every point in the story there is that one person who isn't trustworthy. On the plantation, at the community in South Carolina, Homer the young black boy who rides freely with Ridgeway the determined slave catcher, and the last ultimate betrayer Mingo. Mingo's self righteousness, jealousy and moral stinginess was the catalyst to his own downfall as well the destruction of an entire community that included his wife and his two innocent daughters. 

I'm also not sold on the need to make the underground railroad a literal railroad for this story. I get the symbolism. The idea that the train to freedom carries those who are fleeing through the dark bowels of the earth; for the runaways to emerge from the stops into the light of freedom from their original oppressors. However, the idea of an actual rail system being built secretly and not being detected by those who would destroy it just couldn't make sense to me. Especially the stops in the slave holding states. There simply would be too much involved in making the tunnels for them to have been built without detection. This story could have worked just as well if it had been along the lines of the underground railroad as it actually happened and functioned. The courage and determination that it took for people to run in the night, hiding in the woods and swamps to reach a safe place to rest on a dangerous journey north is sufficient drama. People needing to rely on and understand covert signals that were as subtle and simple as a specific patchwork quilt hung on a laundry line is not only historically correct, but more than enough drama to add to the tension of a story. I understand the need to be unique and distinguish a fictional account from others is important, but in this case the change was unnecessary for me. 

Being in the world of this book with no sense of hope for the future of the main character was oppressive and made for slow reading. I couldn't read this one for more than an hour or so at a time. I was constantly wondering what horror could possibly befall Cora next, and Whitehead did not fail to deliver another atrocity. I only need to experience trauma from a book once, and Whitehead provided that in spades, so I say with utmost confidence that I can't imagine ever wanting to read this book again. I don't regret reading Underground Railroad, but once is more than enough for me. As I said at the beginning of this review, if I had gotten some form of resolution at the end of the story, I probably would have felt better about what I read. However, I felt like there was simply more to happen that I won't get to know. Cora is young at the end of the book and at the very least I would like to have gotten a glimpse of where she lands permanently. We get quick glimpses of what a few of the survivors say about what happens in the end, but we don't know what happens to Cora who is the center of the entire ding dang story. Whitehead left me feeling wrung out, bereft, and blowing in the wind. 

It feels a bit frivolous to sign off in my usual way, but...

Happy Reading!

For a story that I have no intention of reading again, I tabbed the hell out of this book!

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all slaves, but Cora is an outcast even among her fellow Africans, and she is coming into womanhood; even greater pain awaits. Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her of the Underground Railroad and they plot their escape.

Like Gulliver, Cora encounters different worlds on each leg of her journey...Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors of black life in pre-Civil War America. 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.

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