The Underground Railroad (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel - Colson Whitehead

Shout out to Obsidian Black Death whose review convinced me to buy this book sooner than I otherwise would have.


                In the spring, I watched the WGN tv series Underground, which quite frankly should have been nominated for more Emmys than it was.  The first season chronicled the escape attempt of a group of slaves.  Additionally, the story focuses on a slave hunter and his son as well as a white couple who join the Underground Railroad.  While some sequences are a bit much (there is rescue by Native Americans that doesn’t quite work) and some historically inaccuracy, the series is well written, well-acted and gripping.  If you haven’t checked it out, you should.  The best episode is the one told though the viewpoint of children. 


                A student watched the show as well because she was interested in the history of the Underground Railroad.  She didn’t know much about however, and had confused Sally Hemmings with something connected to Washington.


                I’m angry at society not at the student because it should be in an English Composition 101 Class that students find out about Sally Hemmings, the impact of slavery.  Something is wrong somewhere.  In part because people either try to white wash out - Bill O’Reilly’s comment about the slaves building the White House or we focus on a very narrow view – only the big plantations but nothing about free blacks for instance.


                In many ways, Whitehead’s book does redress some of this.  In Whitehead’s book, the Underground Railroad is, in fact, an Underground Railroad.  As Sallie May of Ask a Slave would say, a road under the ground.   The story is mainly about Cora and her journey to freedom.  Cora is pursued by a slave hunter who failed to recapture her mother.  It’s a matter of pride at this time, for him.  Cora is divided about her mother, for her mother left her behind when her mother ran.


                Whitehead’s novel succeeds in part because it is so stark.  The horror isn’t the actions; it is the fact that the actions are accepted as everyday actions as nothing out of the ordinary.  Usually in many narratives there is a precipitating event.  For instance, in the series Underground Rosalie runs because of a violent attempted rape.   Cora’s desire to flee doesn’t seem to come from that “straw”, it is harder to put into words, and perhaps is more powerful because of that.  There are two incidents that immediately precede her flight but neither one seems to be a full tipping off point.  She was given the chance, she seized it.


                Along with Cora, the reader than goes on a journey over the pre-Civil War south.  While Whitehead has played a little with historical placement, all that which Cora encounters has historical source.  Valentine Farmer’s has real forerunners, and the various laws about African-American as well, there is even a reference to the sterilization of minorities.


                At times, Whitehead leaves Cora and gives the reader glimpses into other people, answering in part some questions.  He shows that a slave hunter can include a black man, that an underground railroad supporter can have less pure reasons for doing what she does.  He shows humanity.


                The book is stark, but a powerful read.