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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Colson Whitehead: "The Underground Railroad"

Author:  Colson Whitehead
Series:  The Underground Railroad
Plot Type:  Historical Fiction with Magical Realism
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality3; Humor—2   
Publisher and Titles:  Doubleday (2016)

                    PUBLISHER'S BLURB                     

    From prize-winning, bestselling author Colson Whitehead, a magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South:

     Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

     In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

      Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

                    MY REVIEW                     
    The story begins in a flashback as Cora's African grandmother, Ajarry, is captured, enslaved, and brought to America to be sold to the highest bidder for $226 and then branded with her new owner's mark. After being sold again and again over the next few years, Ajarry is purchased by James Randall of Georgia, her final owner. On the Randall plantation, she bore five children from three husbands, but only one of her children survived past childhood. Here, Ajarry reflects on her life: "Since the night she was kidnapped she had been appraised and reappraised, each day waking upon the pan of a new scale. Know your value and you know your place in the order. To escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principles of your existence: impossible." But Ajarry's surviving child, Mabel, has a different view of life, so after Ajarry's death, she leaves Cora to fend for herself and runs off alone, heading north. 

     Colson uses matter-of-fact language to portray the harrowing details of plantation life in which slaves had to contend not only with the cruelty of masters and overseers, but with bullying, beatings, and rape by their fellow slaves—all determined by a person's place in the pecking order. His descriptions of Cora's daily life are not written in a melodramatic manner. Rather, he just tells it like it is, with no dramatic, emotional words or phrases to milk our emotions—a methodology that makes the violence even more gut-wrenching because it is so "normal." For example, after everyone in the slave quarter learns that "Cora's womanhood had come into flower, Edward, Pot, and two hands from the southern half [of the plantation] dragged her behind the smokehouse. If anyone heard or saw, they did not intervene. The...women sewed her up." And that was that: no recriminations, no punishment—just another bad day in Cora's life. In a later chapter, she refers to this experience as the day that those men "seasoned" her.

     The bulk of the book is written from Cora's perspective (in the third-person voice) as she decides whether to stay with the Randalls or to accept the invitation of Caesar, another slave, to run away to freedom. When her master dies unexpectedly and the plantation is taken over by his sociopathic brother (who has his eye on Cora), she goes off with Caesar on an odyssey that takes her from one dangerous situation to another. Early on, a group of white men ambush Caesar and Cora, and she slams a rock into the head of the twelve-year-old boy who tries to capture her, sending him into a fatal coma. From that point on, all of the posters offering a reward for her capture label her not only as a runaway, but as a murderer—a sentence that promises torture and death.

     Colson structures his novel as an episodic tale that focuses—one by one—on a series of places (Cora's stops on the Underground Railroad) and people (their back stories and motivations), beginning with Ajarry and Georgia and ending with Mabel and the North. Cora's first Underground Railroad experience introduces a note of magical realism into the narration. Each station has its own architectural tone, depending on the whims and eccentricities of its station master. The first agent, Lumbly, decorates his barn with "some souvenirs from my travels:": a collection of iron manacles, cuffs, chains, muzzles, collars, and shackles used by slavers to keep their property from escaping. Deep under Lumbly's barn is the train tunnel: "The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end...walls lined with dark and light colored stones in an alternating pattern...Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel, pinned into the dirt by wooden cross-ties." When Cora asks how far the tunnel extends and who built it, Lumbly is evasive: "Far enough for you." and "Who builds anything in this country?" The runaways are given the choice of two different trains, each going to a different place. When Cora asks where the trains are going, Lumbly replies, "Away from here, that's all I can tell you." So, they must make a choice between two unknowns. But, for Cora and Caesar, the unknown is always better than the known.

     From Lumbly, Cora gets two important pieces of information that will come back to haunt her throughout her travels. First, he explains that Cora and Caesar will be moving from one state to another: "Every state is different...Each one a state of possibility, with its own customs and way of doing things. Moving through them, you'll see the breadth of the country before you reach your final stop." Then, just as they climb into the dilapidated boxcar that serves as the passenger car, he tells Cora, "If you want to see what this nation is all about,...Look outside as you speed through, and you'll find the true face of America." As their ride begins, Cora follows Lumbly's instructions and peers through the slats to see what America is really like. "There was only darkness, mile after mile." 

     Colson's use of magical realism manifests as slight deviations from historical fact. For example, Cora makes her first stop in South Carolina, which views itself as progressive in its treatment of slaves, providing government ownership for all of them along with health-care benefits and employment opportunities. The health-care program includes several projects with goals that are kept secret from the "patients": a syphilis study, a birth-control program (not pills, but permanent sterilization), and a blood research project that seeks to breed specific physical and psychological characteristics into the African population. All are medical anachronisms, but each will eventually come to fruition many decades later in real time in just as dark a manner as Colson lays them out in Cora's world. As Colson folds these projects into Cora's world in his oh-so-realistic manner, they seem perfectly reasonable to slaves who are used to having no health care at all, but we know how horribly they turn out. We even get veiled references to the Nazi's manipulation of German youth to spy on their own families and Shirley Jackson's fictional stone-throwing mob. When Cora travels across Tennessee in chains, her captor uses
 the Cherokee Trail of Tears because, ironically, it's the best road through the wilderness. In creating this world, Colson has stirred up a rich stew of evil that bubbles and boils all the way through the story. 

     And Cora—always watching out for the blackness that she knows is there—knows the truth as well. All of the wonders of South Carolina are miraculous to her at first, but soon she peers behind the scenes and recognizes the darkness that lurks behind all of those "good intentions." With a slave hunter on her heels, she's off to North Carolina, a state that views all Negroes as evil and works hard to kill them all. There, she is captured by the major villain of the book: Ridgeway, a fugitive slave hunter who failed to catch Cora's mother and is now determined to hunt her daughter down to make up for his embarrassing failure. 

   Ridgeway's psychopathic diligence conjures up comparisons with Les Misérables' Javert and The Fugitive's Gerard, but his diabolical inhumanity comes straight from the novels of Cormac McCarthy (particularly Blood Meridian): Ridgeway refuses to use gender designations for slaves, dehumanizing them by calling each one "it." He always calculates the dollar difference between the expense of returning the runaway slave vs. the amount of the reward, and if the expense is higher than the reward, he simply kills the slave and goes on to the next job. To top it off, Ridgeway's assistant wears a fly-covered necklace of cut-off slave ears. The novel is set in the mid-19th century, an era when Manifest Destiny was on the lips of politicians and businessmen. At one point, Ridgeway decides to explain Manifest Destiny to his uppity captive: "It means taking what is yours, your property, whatever you deem it to be. And everyone else taking their assigned places to allow you to take it. Whether it's red men or Africans, giving up themselves, giving of themselves, so that we can have what's rightfully ours....American spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the new, to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed." (Isn't it scary that his words echo many of the tweets and sound bites in the current election campaign?)

     Between captures, escapes, near-captures, and more escapes, Cora spends the next months on the run until she finally finds a seemingly idyllic place—but she r
emains on the lookout for the blackness that is always lurking on the edges of every happy moment she has ever known. 

     This is a powerful and haunting story with a strong heroine who breaks our hearts as we root for her and worry about her all the way through. Contrary to much of the sound-bite publicity about The Underground Railroad, this is a complex, multi-layered novel—not just a simple tale about a metaphorical underground railroad. Cora is such a courageous and poignant character that she will live in my memory for a long, long time. Colson is a masterful writer, and my copy of the book is filled with underlinings of phrases and characterizations—too many to even begin to quote in this review. I highly recommend this book, not only for its subject matter, but for Colson's masterful use of language—every sentence crafted with exquisite care and every character fully developed through his or her own words and actions. This is a magnificent fictional portrayal of one unique woman's horrific experience as a slave seeking freedom, and it is a no-holds-barred account of the inhumanity that prevailed in this country just a century and a half ago—and from which this country still has not recovered. 

     One of the best reviews of Underground Railroad that I have read is by Juan Gabriel Vásquez in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Do yourself a favor and click HERE to read that review. 

     If you enjoy this book, you may want to read another recent novel with a very different take on fugitive slave hunting: Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters. Click HERE to read my review of that novel.

                    ABOUT THE AUTHOR                    

     Colson Whitehead is the New York Times bestselling author of The Noble Hustle, Zone One, Sag Harbor, The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt, and one collection of essays, The Colossus of New York. A Pulitzer Prize finalist and a recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships, he lives in New York City. Click HERE to read an interview with Colson about Underground Railroad.

     In researching this novel, Colson read many slave narratives, some of which were recorded and transcribed by employees of the Work Progress Administration (WPA) from the early 1930s through the beginning of World War II. The WPA sent people out to find surviving former slaves and to record their memories. Just clink on the pink-links below to go to these web sites: 

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 (selected WPA Slave Narratives)

From Slavery to Freedom: The African-American Pamphlet Collection, 1822-1909: A number of slaves wrote essays about their experiences, and these were published in pamphlet form.  

Voices from the Days of Slavery: Audio interviews with print transcripts. Some of the audio is difficult to hear, but if you open two screens, you can listen to the audio on one and follow along on the print transcript on the other.

     Here is an excerpt from one of the slave narratives in which Harriet Smith of Hempstead, Texas explains that during slavery, when white ministers preached about obeying "God, the Master," that many slaves believed that God must be their actual Master—the man who owned them—because he was the master that they had to obey. It wasn't until after the Civil War that freed slaves began to understand the true concept of God. In this interview, John Henry Faulk is the white, male interviewer. Click HERE to access the first section of the four-part interview.
John Henry Faulk: Well would the white preacher tell you to behave yourselves and be [Harriet Smith interrupts]
Harriet Smith: Oh yes, they [John Henry Faulk interrupts]
John Henry Faulk: Be good to your master and mistress?
Harriet Smith: Oh yes. That's what they preach. We, sure, didn't know there was any such thing as God and, and, and God, you know. We thought that was a, a different man, but he was our master. Uh, our white folks, you know, preachers would refer to the white folks, master, and so on that way. Preach that way. Didn't know no better. All of them, all of them would go up there to church. Then after we come to be free, you know, they begin to, preach us, you know. They, we begin to know, you know, there was a God and so on.

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