The Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead

All Posts Contain Spoilers

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad‘ is Cora’s story.  Cora is a slave on Randall’s Plantation in Georgia.  An outcast even among her fellow slaves, she has been a “stray” ever since her mother successfully escaped when she was a child, leaving Cora behind.  When her master dies and she is inherited by his sadistic younger brother, Cora is approached by Caesar, a fellow slave, with an offer to escape with him on the Underground Railroad.

The pair accept the help of a white tradesman from town, a station master on the Underground Railroad.  A thing of whispers and myth among slaves in the American South, Cora and Caesar are surprised to discover that it is a literal railroad, built underground, a network of tunnels under the slave states.  They take their first ride, emerging in South Carolina to the sight of skyscrapers (and our first clue that this is not a two hundred year old story).

Everyone loves ‘The Underground Railroad‘.  It won the Pulitzer Prize.  It reached #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List.  It received magnificent reviews; the four blurbs on the front of my copy are by the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, NPR, and Barack Obama.

Oprah loved it.

But I did not love ‘The Underground Railroad‘.  It’s quite good – good enough that there isn’t much point in trying to discern whether it is great, or merely very, very good.  It’s well-written and spare, effective and persuasive.  It has a novel premise, well-executed, stark and not overdone.

I appreciated these things.  But, when I put the book down, I found that it had left me cold.  I did not connect with it.

At least, I did not connect with it…at first.

Sometimes, you are the smartest person in the room – sometimes you are the only person brave enough not to drink the Kool-Aid.  But usually, when everyone around you likes something and you don’t, you’ve missed something.

I sat around for a long time, in bits and pieces over weeks and then months (I finished this book in September), staring at my computer and struggling to figure out why I didn’t love this book.  I was plagued by a sense that I was missing something, and I dreaded having to say out loud (in writing, no less) that I did not like it.  I tried to understand, to explain, why it is that the goodness (greatness) of a book isn’t enough to make us love it.  It isn’t fair that a book can be excellent and unloved, even by one person.  What more can we ask of a book, than that it be good?

And, in all that muddling, the book started to get to me.

Fictions which use alternative realities (science fiction, for example), rely on altered context for their effect.  By placing their moral or human conundra into totally unfamiliar contexts, or by radically changing one aspect of the environment, they throw the problems at the hearts of their stories into sharper relief.

But slavery is not a problem – it was a reality, an atrocity.  Rather, it was a long, unmeasurable series of atrocities, horrors visited upon real people, people just as real as you are.  These things happened.

The essential premise of ‘The Underground Railroad‘ is, what if slavery had not ended?  But slavery does not need to have been permanent to be overwhelming.  If you have already connected, on a visceral level, with what slavery was, then the fantastical extension of it into the present doesn’t teach you much.  And so, at first, ‘The Underground Railroad’ underwhelmed me.  It was jarring, upsetting, but, by being unreal, it lacked the monstrosity of actual slavery.

Alternative reality fictions work best when they show you something you would not have seen without them.  That slavery is was an abomination, that I had already seen.  The depiction was masterful, wrenching and beautiful, but I would have preferred to see something that I had not seen yet.

But, as thought more about it, my emotions started to catch on something.

In Whitehead’s imagination, the American South is not frozen in time; it has evolved, and each of the states of the South has also evolved, differentiated, developed their own brand of slavery to accommodate the particular needs of their economy, their people.

Georgia is brutal, primitive, indistinguishable from its antebellum self.  South Carolina has evolved a sinister, “progressive” state-run program wherein the state owns slaves and educates, houses, and pays them, all while secretly sterilizing them.  North Carolina has decided that it prefers an all-white world, and has outlawed blacks completely, lynching any that are found within state lines.

This was fascinating to me – this drew me in.  Perhaps because this aspect of the novel, more than any other, challenged to me to think more deeply about my own conception of American slavery.  Like many Americans, I have a life-long mental picture of slavery, taught to me when I was very young and shaded with depth and context as I got older, but never essentially re-imagined.  Now, partly that is because a re-imagining was unnecessary: what I was taught about slavery, that it was an atrocity perpetrated by Americans on Americans, an indelible stain on our history and a foundational sin of our nation, is correct.

And ‘The Underground Railroad‘ does not challenge this conclusion.  And, in fact, Cora’s story is this story, and that, I think, was why I did not emotionally register it, at first.  Here was another person ground under an evil system – there are only so many of these narratives we can meet before they feel familiar.

But the story of the states, each sickened and twisted by the continued existence of the institution, each elaborating on the essential evil in its own way – this was a new story.  And as I sat and stewed about the book, as the effect of the new story slowly took hold, Cora snuck in after it.

Colson Whitehead

I hadn’t connected with Cora because I was thinking of her as fictional victim of a real system, and what would be the point of connecting with her when there were so many real victims to grieve for first?  But, of course, I had completely missed the point: Cora is the fictional victim of a fictional system, the catastrophic future we avoided, but only just.  I needed to grieve Cora because of easily she might have existed.

And so, months later, I understood: the point of ‘The Underground Railroad‘ wasn’t to teach me that slavery was terrible – I know that, anyone who has morally developed past the level of a tadpole knows that.  ‘The Underground Railroad’ was trying to tell me that we cannot comprehend the institution of slavery if we negotiate with it as an evil that was – we must instead understand it as an evil that might still be, but for the narrowest of escapes.  Chance, the accumulation of millions of tiny historical accidents, pulled us away from evil – it was NOT our robust moral good sense, and so we must understand the evil as, in some sense, on-going.  Slavery was not given up unanimously and voluntarily, but had to be crushed by force of arms, and so, in some sense, it continues in the heart of our citizens.  

Which means that, in some sense, it continues.

Cora isn’t fictional, exactly – she just doesn’t happen to be real.  

I don’t know whether I love ‘The Underground Railroad: A Novel‘ now, but it has slowly hollowed me out over the past few months.  I have come around and stand a little in awe of it now – I feel as though I have been tossing around a toy grenade and someone just told me it was active, like I was being careless with something very powerful.

So ‘love’ isn’t the right word – ‘fear’ is.  I am afraid of ‘The Underground Railroad‘.  I sat and thought for months and discovered that I had been afraid all along.

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