The Underground Railroad – C. Whitehead

“But if he didn’t read, he was a slave.”

Good news everybody – we’re doing a fiction book this week! And despite the fact that this book won the Pulitzer Prize, it is not a hard read at all. In fact, I started the book when I left my house early in the morning and had finished it before the time my plane touched down in Lisbon.

There was even enough time to strike up a conversation with the guy sitting in the seat next to me about the book! (He initiated it, and I was trapped because I had a window seat. While I do like talking about books, I do not like talking about them on a whim – give me some time to write some notes!)

But here’s what I told Paul, who was on his way to a conference, and had never visited Lisbon before:

Image result for underground railroad book
this book also has one of the most original cover works – i’m sure you recognize it.

Barack Obama called this book ‘Terrific’. It won a Pulitzer Prize. Oprah chose it for her 2016 Book Club Selection. If anything, I’m behind the curve on this one. (I had to wait until I found a copy in my charity shop.) You cannot get a higher endorsement than that.

The premise of the story is quite straightforward – The main character, Cora, is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for everybody, but especially Cora, who is an outcast even among her fellow slaves. Things get worse when the plantation owner dies and his brutal brother, who had previously cast an eye on Cora, inherits the farm. When Cesar, a newly arrived slave, tells Cora about the Underground Railroad, she decides to take a terrifying risk and try to escape with Cesar.

I’ll leave the plot here – there’s much more happening, but I don’t want to give away too much. Suffice to say it is quite a read.

I loved that the author turned the ‘Underground Railroad’ into a physical phenomenon – of course, in reality, it was a smuggling network for runaway slaves, sans locomotive (please, look up Harriet Tupman if you haven’t heard of her!). Generations of future English Lit teachers will love this metaphor as well.

Image result for harriet tubman
Put her on the $20 bill already, you cowards!

But the one thing that I kept thinking about is just how many lives it takes to save one runaway slave. All throughout her journey, Cora meets people that try to help – some of which die. It just seems like such a disproportionate ratio of people saved vs people killed – but then, again, that’s the point – there were not a lot of escape plans that were successful!

Also really interesting was the role of race in this book. Cora received help from both Blacks and Whites, and, similarly, was assaulted by both Whites and Blacks. It’s not as easy as Black = good and White = bad in this novel (and in real life). I am, of course, white, and I obviously read this book from a different perspective than a Black person would. I would like to think that I would have been one of the ones helping Cora, but if you see what price they paid, it makes you wonder.

And that’s another thing this book clearly portrays: The complicity of white people in this reign of terror. Not all white people owned slaves, but they all profited from a) not being black b) the work of the slaves. There are no innocent bystanders here.

However, at the same time, the book shows how slavery imprisons everyone – black and white alike. It corrupts society and creates a reign of terror. To subdue the slaves, explicit violence was needed – and it had to be committed in public for the maximum effect. And everyone who watched – and was forced to watch – got the message: this society is steeped in blood.

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I want to be clear here that I don’t want to draw a comparison between the sufferings of slaves and the white population. They were not equal, not even close. But the effects of slavery affected whites as well, which is often forgotten.

I can smell the Hollywood adaption of this book already. There’s no way this will not be turned into a critically acclaimed Oscar contender. The material begs for it –  it’s vivid, it’s moving, and you’ll find yourself thinking about it for a long time after turning the last page.

 

And next week – it finally is time for the 1,300 page tome that’s been sitting on my bedside table for too long!!

 

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