Monday, December 31, 2018

Colson Whitehead’s Mirror: “The Underground Railroad”

Consider the resume of the novel The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

The Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The National Book Award for fiction. The Carnegie Medal. The Heartland Prize. The Arthur C. Clarke Award. The Hurston-Wright Award. Longlisted for the Man Book Prize. Finalist for the Kirkus Prize. #1 New York Times Bestseller. Oprah Book Club. Best Book of the Year by The New York TimesWashington PostWall Street JournalSan Francisco ChronicleNewsdayGQPublisher’s WeeklyEsquire, and Buzzfeed. Translated into 40 languages.

As I looked at and through the book at a Barnes & Noble Bookstore, I asked myself the obvious question. Can any book deliver with a resume like that one? Has it been overhyped, embraced by the critics because it happened to hit the zeitgeistat exactly the right moment? Would it have received all these accolades if it had been published the year before or the year after?

To come to a book like this, two years after its publication, is a challenge. You don’t want to read it to determine if it lives up to the hype. You don’t like the thought lurking in your head that this could be a book that allows our cultural, media, and publishing elites to celebrate because it’s the culturally correct thing to do (I’ve seen that happen with poetry books). I don’t want to feel compelled to like this book because of all the prizes it’s won or its 4200+ reviews on Amazon. 

No, you want to read this book for the story it tells and what the author is trying to say to you, the reader. That’s what I set out to do, and I believe it’s what I largely accomplished.

Whitehead tells a good story. It’s a hard story, a difficult story, a story filled with violent images and events. It’s a historical story deliberately filled with historical anachronisms. The largest anachronism is implied by the title; there was no real underground railroad, with trains, engineers, stations, and station masters. The historical underground railroad was a network or routes and safe houses that helped runaway slaves escape to freedom. It began in the late 1700s and reached its peak in the 1850s; one estimate says more than 100,000 slaves had been helped by 1850. No one knows for sure.

The story turns that network of routes and safe houses into an actual rail network existing underground. It doesn’t run to a regular schedule, but it does regularly run. 

Cora is a young slave living on a Georgia cotton plantation. Her mother Mabel ran away when Cora was a child; Cora cannot forgive her for leaving her behind. The plantation owners are particularly brutal; the violence is daily and often indiscriminate, and no one is going to help you if you’re singled out for special treatment. 

The underground railroad. Source: National Park Service
Another slave, Caesar, approached Cora about running away. At first, she pushed him away. But eventually she agrees to go with him, knowing that slave catchers will be sent after them. They have to make it 30 miles to a safe house which sits atop an underground station. They get to the safe house and aboard a train. Their owner sends Arnold Ridgeway, one of the most notorious and successful slave catchers, after them.

South Carolina is the first of four key settings in the book, and it is here that Caesar and Cora live for a time. Whitehead uses each setting to dramatize particular kinds of white attitudes and efforts concerning slavery. For South Carolina, the white population considers itself advanced in its thinking, and has established factories, schools, dormitories, and other facilities to help escaped slaves. After the brutality of the plantation, Cora finds South Carolina to an almost intoxicating refuge. But over time, she sees that while she is physically better off, this society with all of its well-meaning people and good intentions are keeping her exactly where they want her. It’s better than plantation slavery, but it, too, is a kind of slavery. And then Ridgeway arrives.

North Carolina is the opposite – a society determined to eradicate all vestiges of slavery – including the slaves themselves. The violence is regularized and constant; Cora is hidden away in an attic by a couple not quite sure what to do with her. Ridgeway finds her here, too. And then it’s on to the fire-blackened wilderness of Tennessee, with its plagues of yellow fever. The final setting is Indiana, where Cora seems to have found the ultimate refuge on the Valentine farm. But the growing community of escaped slaves and free people of color are surrounded by an increasingly hostile white population.

Colson Whitehead
Whitehead has created settings and situations which did not exist as he explains them but have existed in one form or another, to a greater or lesser degree, in most of American history. Slavery, even in the best of situations, was still a system based on brutality and violence. It was a social, economic, and political structure. Black people were property, to be used and abused by owners. 

In the world of The Underground Railroad, even the best-intentioned of abolitionists, sympathizers, and supporters rarely if ever saw black people like Cora as equals or even as full human beings. Cora finds a very tiny number of exceptions, but it is still her common experience. Many black people can’t be trusted, either, because they will also be keeping their eye on opportunity and reward. Cora will discover that she herself can’t be trusted; she’s often her own worst enemy. Slavery is a plague that infects everything.

What Whitehead has done is unusual. He’s created a historical novel that blends, shapes, and transports history. It is unsettling, challenging, disturbing, and riveting. It’s a journey on a train, an underground train, where the view from the windows is darkness.

It’s also a mirror.

Top photograph by Claudia Soraya via Unsplash. Used with permission

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