Book Riot alerted me to it, Oprah celebrated it, Colson Whitehead disarmed me with his self-deprecating humour on the Inside the New York Times Book Review podcast (on reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved as he was writing his book: “I’m screwed!”) and it’s been nominated for a National Book Award.
So, it was like a rock star had finally come onto the stage when I saw The Underground Railroad for sale in London this month: I had to read it.
The subject-matter – slavery – was as somber as the expectations were high. So, I’m happy to report that, whilst relentless and confronting, it is not a heavy read. Whitehead writes with supple prose, moving the story forward (and occasionally back); the action and imagery akin to cinema.
“Cora’s grandmother was sold a few times on the trek to the fort, passed between slaves for cowrie shells and glass beads. It was hard to say how much they paid for her in Ouidah as she was part of a bulk purchase …”
The story centres on Cora, a slave in Georgia. Cora runs away with Caesar via the underground railroad (historically, a network of people helping slaves to escape to the north pre – Civil War). Whitehead reimagines this as an actual railway, giving those scenes a slight Alice in Wonderland feel. It’s just plausible enough to be realistic: no flights of fancy required.
Cora travels through South and North Carolina, Tennessee and Indiana, pursued by the slave-catcher, Ridgeway. Stories of Ridgeway are interspersed, along with Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry and her mother Mabel. Whitehead does this well, as an interesting digression, so it doesn’t obstruct the narrative.
Ajarry was separated from her family and we discover on page 4 that they died, but she imagines them working for “kind and generous masters” and perhaps freeing themselves.
“These fantasies gave Ajarry comfort when her burdens were such to splinter her into a thousand pieces.”
This is matter-of-fact writing – clean, beautifully edited – the tone warm and engaging, but depicts scenes of horror.
“She twice tried to kill herself on the voyage to America, once by denying herself food and then again by drowning.”
I was compelled to read on, enjoying the pace and Cora as a feisty heroine. Whitehead achieves a balance between this and the atrocities going on all around, which stop you in your tracks at times.
I came to this book knowing little about slavery. I had no idea of the violence, including torture; and the sinister methods in some states which used slaves as medical guinea pigs; down to the everyday examples of segregation.
I learnt how pervasive was the social norm to keep the slaves repressed.
“Antislavery literature was illegal in this part of the nation. Abolitionists and sympathizers who came down to Georgia and Florida were run off, flogged and abused by mobs, tarred and feathered. Methodists and their inanities had no place in the bosom of King Cotton. The planters did not abide contagion.”
The book shines a spotlight on slavery in all its forms, while Cora moves from place to place and meets diverse characters, who take risks to help her. Cora is symbol of the slave struggling to be free; and at times her story is secondary to the larger picture, of slavery at work in different parts of America.
“A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality.”
Whitehead’s descriptions of the violence done to slaves are to the point and lucid, but make uncomfortable reading. Ordinary people would, for example, enthusiastically watch a hanging as Friday night entertainment. How can humans (ordinary people, of their time) be capable of such cruelty?
At this time (with modern day slavery affecting 21 to 46 million people and racism seeping into the US election, Brexit and the European debates over refugees) – at any time – this is an important discussion. Whitehead brings the issues to life with great clarity, without being preachy or judgmental.
“And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft and cruelty. Yet here we are.”
Much to think about, and I was taken from the story into the world of ideas. The only slight drawback – worth the trade-off – was that I saw the characters as actors in a bigger story rather than feeling they were real, with flaws and ambiguities.
This is a book filled with ideas: eloquent and powerful, it will be talked about for a long time. It is a must-read.
India reportedly has the highest number of slaves today. This brings me to another book I read recently, not on this topic but on the theme of running away: The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota. It tells the story of three Indian men who go to England, fleeing dire lives (though nothing like Cora’s experience) and a woman, Narinder, who marries one of them, Randeep, to help him obtain a visa.
Sahota stays on the more intimate level of the men and Narinder, and their stories; it does not make pronouncements about immigration. It is looser than The Underground Railroad. But I found it immensely enjoyable and stayed up late to finish it, wanting to know what happened to the characters. In the process I gained a new understanding of people who come to places like London, and their struggles.
The characters are deliciously flawed – you would dislike one on one page, and be on his side on the next. Their conflicts and mistakes make them human.
It quietly raises issues that are complex and hard – what to do if you are in England illegally, supporting a family back home and desperately need work – would you accept poor pay and conditions? In a capitalist world, every individual for themselves, when is employment exploitation? Slavery?
As a post-script, I saw that the police raided the Shiny Hand Car-wash in Carlisle recently, reporting “no offences” in terms of modern day slavery or immigration. A far cry from Cora’s trials, but the issue has not gone away.
Is there anything positive to emerge from slavery? No, but its survivors had children, and one of their descendants is Michelle Obama – a bright, shining star as far as I’m concerned and unafraid to have a discussion, about the White House being built by slaves or sexism in the presidential campaign.
What to read next? I’m inspired to follow up with Beloved by Toni Morrison and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. What do you think?
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