Thursday, 23 July 2020

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Underground Railroad is a powerful and intentionally disturbing novel about slave-era America.

His main character, Cora, was born onto the Randall slave plantation in Georgia, the daughter of Mabel – the only slave ever to have runaway from Randall and evade recapture. Left to fend for herself when she was only nine years old, she has developed a toughness unusual even among slave women.

Whitehead does not shirk from showing the sickening violence and cruelty of life on the plantation, and the way it strips its victims of their humanity and reduces everything to the necessity of survival.

“There was an order of misery, misery tucked inside miseries, and you were meant to keep track.”

And yet the first time fellow slave, Caesar, asks Cora to escape with him, she says no. It is only after she is savagely beaten for her impulsive defence of a child that she allows him to persuade her to ride the Underground Railroad with him.

I don’t always read the blurbs of books before I dive in, so I was unprepared for the touch of surrealism when Whitehead flips the metaphor of the Underground Railroad and gives us a literal railroad running underground from State to State. As their first station agent tells them:

“If you want to see what this nation is all about, I always say, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through and you’ll find the true face of America.”

And so Whitehead takes Cora, and the reader, on a journey from state to state that reveals the diverse and ugly conditions of different pre-Civil War States.

From the Georgia plantation we are taken to South Carolina, where an apparently benevolent system hides living museum exhibits (something that also characterised the Britain’s Great Exhibition in 1851) and compulsory sterilisation. Across the border in North Carolina, they have ‘solved’ the negro problem by abolishing negroes – for a Black person merely to be found in the state is a capital crime, their bodies strung up as a gruesome warning along the ‘Freedom Trail’. Then there is Tennessee, blighted by poverty, draught, brushfires and sickness. And lastly, Indiana, no longer a slave state, where for a time a mixture of free Blacks and runaways try and establish a model community alongside the farms of the White settlers.

The slave catcher, Ridgeway, sums up the sense of entitlement and manifest destiny embedded in the American Dream. “If n***s were meant to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his. If the white man wasn’t destined to taken this new world, he wouldn’t own in now.”

If the literal Underground Railway is a fiction, the conditions Whitehead describes in the different States are not. His depiction of each of Cora’s destinations is firmly rooted in fact. He has no need to embroider – the truth is horrific enough. It is the long history of glossing over those facts, on both side of the Atlantic, that has been and continues to be so damaging.

“The newspapers like to impress the fantasy of the happy plantation and the contented slave who sang and danced and loved Massa. Folks enjoyed that sort of thing and it was politically useful.”

An important and necessary book that helps to rebalance the scales against lies and fictions still too often being found politically-useful.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize 2017 and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton, The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Avoid If You Dislike: Confronting the realities of slave-era America

Perfect Accompaniment: An apple, and pumpernickel bread

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

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