Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Underground Railroad

Title:  The Underground Railroad
Author:  Colson Whitehead
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2016. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0385542364 / 978-0385542364

Book Source:  I read this book for our local book club.

Opening Sentence:  "The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no."

Favorite Quote:  "Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its aces, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn't stand."

The history of slavery in our nation is brutal and horrifying. The history of those who stood against it is inspiring. It has been depicted in many ways through both fiction and nonfiction. It deserves to be remembered. It needs to be remembered so that it may never be repeated and so that the impacts that are felt to this day can be addressed. The history alone makes this book worth reading.

Putting the acknowledgement of history aside brings me to its telling in this book, and I am not sure what I think. Do I go with the fact that if each retelling of this history educates even one person, it is worthwhile? Do I go with the fact that this, as a book, failed to engage me as others in this genre have?

The Underground Railroad presents the history of slavery - those who worked to abolish it and those who worked to preserve it - through the eyes of a slave named Cora. The book begins with Cora as a young child on a plantation in Georgia. She is alone and uncared for, an outcast amongst even the other slaves on the plantation. Cora's mother is notorious for having escaped and having left Cora behind. Still Cora survives, independent and courageous. A series of events push Cora to something she has never before considered - escape.

This brings Cora to the Underground Railroad - to those who would help her and to those who would beat her back into slavery. With her story as the anchor, the book explores different facets of the history - the brutality and inhumanity of slavery, the actual underground railroads, scientific experiments, communes, and even the slave bounty hunters. The issue is that Cora as a character does not develop through the book. That and the jumps between episodes in her life to capture the different historical points keep me from fully engaging with the story.

My other, bigger issue is that this book depicts the underground railroad as literally that - a physical labyrinth railroad lying beneath the ground with stations, dead ends, and stationmasters all the way along its path. To me, this is necessary and does not add a visual image I need to imagine the risks and dangers real people took to make the escape paths possible. The "underground" implies the absolute secrecy that was essential; anything else meant death and destruction for all involved. The literal interpretation of that word seems to belie the risks involved.

All historical fictions is just that - fiction. The fiction title enables liberties - reimagining a timeline, describing conversation, bringing to life characters - with the history to tell a compelling story. However, this history itself is so compelling that it needs no embellishment especially not one so completely unbelievable. The embellishments in many ways diminish the history by introducing somewhat trivial fictional devices to tell the story. I am left wondering why.

Regardless, for the history the book depicts, read it and remember it. "We can't save everyone. But that doesn't mean we can't try. Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth."

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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