As a student of slave narratives in my master’s program, I was especially intrigued about the methods author Colson Whitehead uses to make the railroad more than a metaphor and instead a functioning railroad in his new novel, The Underground Railroad. Also of note, the very last book I read in my master’s studies (before concentrating on my thesis) was his Zone One.
I wondered: 1) What would I think of this book compared to the “real” slave narratives I have studied and does this do them injustice? 2) Will the fantastical elements take away from the heavy topic here? And 3) Will the book disappoint me by just telling me more of what I already know?
My answers to the first two questions are positive yet complicated, and it is not likely I can adequately commit them to words, but the answer to 3 is: No the book did not disappoint me, at all.
Cora, the main character, thinks at one point:
“A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality.”
Although not a “true” slave narrative in that it was not based on a true living person or written by one, Whitehead himself studied enough slave narratives and anything that happened to Cora or the characters either did happen to someone or easily could have. I should note the rest of the book was not fantastical at all, just the railroad element.
Historically, the underground railroad was a network of safe houses, but in this book it was an underground functioning (although mysteriously) railroad. For me, the method worked and did not distract from the topic at hand but served to take the character to several different locations to show even more injustices.
Most of the injustices depicted here actually take place after she leaves the plantation. It also heavily depicts the atrocities committed on those who tried to help.
What does the railroad here symbolize?
The “railroad” here symbolizes something though I am still not completely certain what. No character understands it completely, and this could be for safety. It’s schedule is odd. No one knows there destination. And it is often late – though the same could be said for Amtrak!
At first I saw it as hope and the kindness of people who put their own lives on the line, and although it does some good, it does not come close to helping all who need helped. But I think he is meaning it as more than that.
“The earth trembled faintly. In days to come, when she remembered the late train’s approach, she would not associate the vibrations with the locomotive but with the furious arrival of a truth she had always known.”
Several times something like this is written:
“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.”
But of course in this underground version, you see nothing but darkness.
So this certainly left me thinking. And wishing I had a real “Book Club” for discussion.
The issues of race in this book are timely, and unsettling. In a flash-forward an old woman who has lived through so much horror says this about WWI:
“The conflict in Europe was terrible and violent, she told her sailor, but she took exception to the name. The Great War had always been between the white and the black. It always would be.”
I applaud that the book, and now especially as Oprah’s pick, brings a modern slave narrative to a wider audience, and likely puts it in the hands of many who have never read a slave narrative.
To those who want to learn more, straight from the source, as Whitehead did before he wrote this more modern retelling, I recommend two that sit in my bookcase. They are books I feel every American should read:
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Written by himself.
As you will see, Whitehead uses these two stories significantly in his book.
I certainly recommend Whitehead’s book and also enjoyed his acknowledgements where after paying tribute to the books above and others, he says,
“David Bowie is in every book, and I always put on Purple Rail and Daydream Nation when I write the final pages; so thanks to him and Prince and Sonic Youth.”
Certainly interesting and prolific is Colin Whitehead who can move effectively from writing about zombies (Zone One) to this heavy topic.
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