Title: The Underground Railroad
Author: Colson Whitehead
Genre: Alternate history / Allegory
Rating: 5 stars
“If niggers were supposed 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 take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now.
Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor–if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.”
Yes! 5 damn stars! As a history buff, I appreciate it when an author puts time and effort in research, and the amount of research Whitehead put on this piece is clear with every turn of the page. It wasn’t an extremely emotional read which is what you’d expect from slavery literature. Whitehead took the other route by being detached and honest, one could even say ‘clinical’ in his approach. The Underground Railroad isn’t your standard sad slave story, but a rebellious one and I found this change in narrative refreshing. That’s not to say it wasn’t harrowing, oh boy it was! Whitehead brought the depth of the degradation and depravity of what people of color had endured to the forefront more than any other book I’ve read.
In this story we are following the life of a slave called Cora who is working on a cotton plantation in Georgia. She is not only a slave in this plantation but also an outcast from all the other slaves – making her exiled in a double-sense. This brought up a point that I hadn’t considered at all. I always assumed that slaves in a plantation were unified. I’m that naive. Whitehead highlights that slavery can drive enslaved people to treat one another in selfish and viscous ways.
Cora is approached by a new slave named Caesar who tells her about an underground railroad and suggests that they run away together. He wants her to come along with her because he thinks she might be a good luck charm of sorts as her mother was the only slave to run away from the Randall plantation and settle up north, possible Canada – or so we’re led to believe. This was written like an Odyssey of sorts. Each state was a chapter and as Cora progressed from South to North, we saw the unique challenges she faced. Each state represented a different type of institutional racism that African Americans had to (or until today, have to) face.
“If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.”
A lot of reviewers have said that the characters were under-developed and they couldn’t connect with the protagonist. I did! What Cora went through made her very jaded, cut-and-dry person and for me personally, the fact that Whitehead didn’t make it easy to connect with her made quite a lot of sense. I was discussing with Shell and she summed it up rather nicely when she said “would I not be that way too?”
The undergound railroad, the real one that is, was a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States in the early 19th century and used by African slaves to escape to the free states and Canada with the help of abolitionists who were sympathetic to their cause. In this story, the underground railroad is not a figurative trail that slaves took to escape north, but an actual physical underground railroad. From my knowledge, this was the only historically ‘inaccurate’ part. Everything else that Whitehead touched on was historically accurate. I’ve seen some comments discrediting the book as an inaccurate work of historical fiction but I beg to differ. The genre of this book is alternate history and Whitehead said on the get-go that this is an allegory. When you stop holding this book to a standard that it wasn’t trying to meet (historical fiction) and instead focus on the ways in which the message was being told, it will leave you with a lot to appreciate.
Homegoing (June 2016) and The Underground Railroad (August 2016) were the big releases of the year that focused on slavery. I was extremely critical of Homegoing (you can read my review here) and after reading The Underground Railroad, my opinions on Yaa Gyasi’s novel were cemented. First of all, the level (or lack of) character development in Homegoing left me wanting. There were so many inconclusive ends to the characters that the potency of the story was lost to me. With Underground Railroad however, in as much as the protagonist was detached (with good reason), we knew her full story, and the stories of the secondary characters as well. The chapter on Mabel (Cora’s mom) for instance, gave me a lot of closure as a reader. The glaring bit for me however is that Gyasi hardly portrayed any sympathetic whites during the slavery era feeding to the incorrect notion that all whites were evil. Colson showed us a more accurate picture by highlighting the fact that there were a few whites who actually risked their lives for the black cause. For literature that focuses on a topic as vast and painful as slavery which has multi-generational effects, you can’t make such huge omissions.
Man Booker prospects for Whitehead? Well, I haven’t yet read the other Man Booker nominees but based on the quality of this book alone, I have a feeling Whitehead will make it to the shortlist. Will he win the prize? I don’t think so. Having black authors win it for three consecutive years doesn’t look very diversified for the awarding body (Marlon James 2015 and Paul Beatty 2016). Also, race and slavery were the main themes last year (Paul Beatty 2016). I’m sure the folks at Man Booker will want to shake things up this time which is a shame because ‘The Underground Railroad’ deserves all the accolades it can get.