The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

theundergroundrailroadThis is one of the most interesting books I’ve read in awhile. It’s the book that Oprah got so excited about that it ended up being released early, which obvious gave it a bit boost in the buzz department, which is how I heard of it. It’s one of the more intriguing and thought-provoking novels I’ve read in awhile, and I’m sure it will linger with me for awhile after reading.

On one level, The Underground Railroad is a straightforward historical narrative about a slave named Cora who escapes. She runs away from her owners in the company of another escapee, a young man named Caesar. Together, Cora and Caesar make use of the underground railroad to seek their freedom, pursued by a relentless slave hunter named Ridgeway.

That’s one level of the story, and that alone is compelling enough. But there’s something else going on here, something that’s halfway between magic realism and alternative history. Though many of the details in The Underground Railroad are vividly historically accurate, some are not. The best-known of these, which any review of the novel will spoil you on, is that the “Underground Railroad” of the title is not simply the historic network of safe houses and abolitionists who helped slaves escape to freedom; it is also a literal railroad, a series of underground tunnels and trains carrying these escaped slaves. But that’s not the only place where Whitehead plays with history. In the different places where Cora ends up staying on her flight to freedom — South Carolina, North Carolina, Indiana — she encounters communities organized according to different “solutions” that were proposed over time to America’s “Negro problem” (the problem being the presence of a large number of people who had been kept as slaves and treated as less than human).

For example, in one community Cora finds that the very presence of black people has been outlawed. African-American slaves have been replaced by Irish indentured servants, and freed or escaped blacks must leave the area or risk execution. While this never happened in any historical community in the way depicted, it vividly illustrates the desire on the part of some white people to make the problems caused by slavery “just go away” by erasing black faces and bodies from t landscape. In this way, Colson Whitehead takes ideas and makes them literal, showing us through Cora’s experience not only what life was like for an escaped slave but also what it might have been like, had various theories about “the Negro problem” been put into practice.

This blend of actual history with imagined history made for a vivid and compelling read. I tore through this book quickly and found it hard to put down.

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